Maverick (1994)

Maverick, inspired by the comic-Western TV series of the same name, opens with eponymous gambler and smart-mouth extraordinaire Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) reddening at the wrong end of a rope, only the horse on which he is precariously balanced keeping him from the longest drop of them all. A bunch of belligerent hombres, framed in Leone-esque close-up, squint at their victim a few times through the desert heat before riding away—leaving our hero in a situation as sticky as his bulging forehead.

This surly Spaghetti Western tribute, with its terse dialogue and sweaty close-ups, is amusingly disrupted as Maverick’s lackadaisical voiceover kicks in: “It’d just been a shitty week for me from the beginning…” Unfortunately this irreverent introduction is the apex of Maverick’s wit, and what follows is an almost interminable stream of lowball, throwaway gags and scenarios that fail to distract one from the film’s underlying banality.

Naturally, at this point Bret Maverick begins explaining how this less than ideal week began. We see him riding into the town of Crystal River (on a donkey, no less) to collect $3,000 owed to him so he can pay the entrance fee of an upcoming poker tournament. Before long, he crosses paths with a sassy swindler calling herself Annabelle (Jodie Foster) and swanky Annabelle-admiring drip James Garner, both of whom join him in a series of generally forgettable hijinks it would take more time than the task is worth to describe—as well as divesting them of what paltry humor they possess.

In essence, though, Maverick’s plot doesn’t so much unfold as regurgitate. The film is indulgent, overstuffed, and critically overlong. You’ll probably be left wondering how what initially appears a light, fun-loving venture went on to produce such a wearying circus of a movie, possessed of neither narrative nor comedic thrust. This situation is significantly worsened by the story’s final twists (although “seizures” is probably more accurate, given both their frequency and lack of restraint), which are arbitrary to the point of indifference in addition to dragging the film out at least twenty minutes longer than tolerable.

To his credit, Gibson’s natural charm sustains Maverick’s momentum as long as possible, as he hams it up with a delightful mixture of giddiness and guile. Unfortunately, the film’s numerous secondary character-interactions are awkward and disengaging. Characters speak merely because the actors who portray them have a line to deliver—or because they’re cuing Maverick to respond with a better one—and despite expensive sets and plentiful extras we never once believe in the existence of a living, breathing world outside the moment-to-moment shenanigans of our hero.

Maverick is also chockful of cameos, such is the script’s compulsion to help itself to everything within reach, however ineffective. In the midst of a heist scene, Danny Glover exchanges bemused glances with Gibson. And, just in case you didn’t get this egotistical reference to Lethal Weapon (also directed by Richard Donner) the first time, Sergeant Murtaugh is sure to mention that he’s “too old for this shit” a minute or so later. James Coburn makes a more sustained appearance toward the conclusion, although even his formidable screen-presence fails to adequately resuscitate a narrative that is, by this point, clearly dead on arrival.

Screenwriter William Goldman already had the financially overwrought though highly successful Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) under his many-notched belt prior to penning Maverick. Maverick is certainly a worse film than BC&TSK—lacking that picture’s remarkable visual flair and narrative directness. Nevertheless, there are similarities in the flaws of both productions: an overestimation of audience goodwill, and an over-reliance on swashbuckling star power and big-budget pizazz. Maverick’s particular failings are underscored by its incompetent management of the comic pace established by its witty opening scene, and the presumption that tired “jackass”/donkey puns or gunslinging clichés will revive its flagging plot at every turn.

The thing is, the pulpy caricatures and one-dimensional plotting of Maverick would be perfectly enjoyable if only the film was as funny as it seems convinced that it is (Maverick is so convinced of its humor that, at a soporific 127 minutes, it can hardly even bring itself to end). Somewhere here a deal has gone frustratingly awry: the merry antics of Donner’s film promise foremost to entertain, to charm us—sweep us off our feet. Although, by the halfway point one feels as if they are doing everyone in this overpopulated production a favor by sitting through it.  2.5 / 5

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