Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Greats: Maverick

This is the second of three posts this week celebrating the works of Richard Donner. Click here and here for the other two posts.

I recently made a list of my five favorite Richard Donner films and, some time down the road, I'll probably do the same list for westerns. At the top of the westerns list will be the same title on top of Donner's list: 1994's Maverick. Some of you are crying foul, I'm sure. What about Unforgiven? The Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns? The Wild Bunch? John Wayne! Frankly, you can take all of those. Mr. Maverick is number one with a bullet. Allow me to break it down for you.

First of all, I'm not a fan of westerns. It's probably my least favorite genre in cinema only because it is so limited to what it can do. How many westerns have you seen had the following cliches? The lone cowboy butting into situations that don't pertain to him. The gunfight/fistfight on the streets with nervous townspeople looking on. A scene in a bar where shots of whiskey are served and/or the bottles are smashed to pieces. Lingering shots of men on horses slowly passing through gorgeous landscapes. I could go on and on. Without fail, these scenes are in every western. I'm just bored of watching the same recycled scenarios. (Horror is no better, honestly, but I think you can be more creative when it comes to blood and gore.)

When I saw the dour and lifeless Cowboys and Aliens this summer, I was trying to think of westerns that were actually fun. Back to the Future Part 3 had the typical cliches, for sure, but at least the film toyed with the usual conventions by including the loopy element of time travel. Then you have Blazing Saddles, which I am always reminded of whenever I see cowboys sitting around a campfire. And don't get me wrong. Recent entries of the western canon, like True Grit, Open Range, Appaloosa, and 3:10 to Yuma are all damned fine films. But where's the fun?

That makes Maverick the single most entertaining entry in the entire western genre. It has all of the cliches you would expect but Maverick actually makes them feel fresh again. Renowned screenwriter William Goldman (no stranger to westerns, having penned the iconic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) manages to make Maverick a rollicking good time, filled to the brim with cons within a con, colorful villains, fantastic poker scenes, and more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Maverick is more of an adventure than a western, taking us from town to town as our beleaguered hero (Mel Gibson) tries to collect enough money so he can enter a high stakes poker tournament. Along the way, he falls for a sly thief (Jodie Foster) and encounters resistance from a sheriff (James Garner, the original Bret Maverick in the TV series). Like Mission: Impossible, Maverick updated the elements of its popular TV show counterpart and made its own rules for the big screen. Despite having never seen the TV show, it is still fun for me to see the old Maverick play against the new one. The witty banter between the two men and the vixen that comes between them is a great, energetic thrill, its tongue planted firmly between cheeks.

Being an outsider when it comes to westerns, I missed out on all of the cameos and references. Actors like Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle, Robert Fuller, James Drury, so beloved in the old school classics of TV's past, are given the royal treatment in Maverick. The film is a love letter to those enjoyed those serials back in the day. Even though I'm not in that particular fan club, I can still appreciate what Goldman and Donner have done here. Even Donner himself had a hand in those serials in the 60s. It's hard not to embrace the love and affection displayed on screen.

And Donner really has fun with it. He not only employed those famous cowboys in the film, but some of his own former actors in blink-and-you'll-miss-'em roles. Danny Glover, Gibson's co-star in Donner's Lethal Weapon series, appears as a bank robber in the beginning of the film. The two actors stare at one another as if they recognize each other. It's a cute gag, all in good fun. Donner also cast Margot Kidder in a brief part as a nun. Kidder, as we know, was Lois Lane in his Superman. Hell, he even put his own wife (uber-producer Lauren Shuler-Donner) in a walk-on part. On Maverick, it's all in the family!

He and Goldman toy marvelously with the storytelling structure. The first half is a flashback, while the second half is told in "real time." This gives the film a greater sense of urgency, a larger element of surprise. They also utilize Maverick's voiceover to hilarious effect. Upon meeting Alfred Molina's Angel, Gibson voices, "From the moment I slapped eyes on this hombre, I smelled trouble. And refried beans."

The stars are irresistible. The camera loves Mel Gibson. I don't think he has ever looked as good as he does here. Gibson oozes charisma in every scene, and it is only fitting that he is playing (spoiler alert!) James Garner's son. Garner's been acting in front of a camera since the mid 50's and he's as effortlessly charming in the new Maverick as he was in the old one. 40 years of experience and that 'ol Jim Rockford's still got it.

And Jodie Foster, who inexplicably drew the most criticism for her work here, has never been this light-footed. After winning Oscars for such heavy, wrenching performances from Silence of the Lambs and The Accused, it's a refreshing joy to see her in such a buoyant, almost ethereal role as ditzy, determined petty thief Annabelle Bransford. Her gorgeous angelic face complements Gibson's chiseled good looks. (I got a little thrill watching the two of them together again in this year's The Beaver, in which they played a married couple.)

Graham Greene stops by in a brief scene as Joseph, an Indian who is paid handsomely by a wealthy tycoon to act like, well, an Indian. The face paint, the feathers, the whole get up, is all an act. Greene's contemporary mannerisms are priceless. Joseph happily helps his buddy "Mav" get the money he needs, and the camaraderie between these two old chums is among the cheeriest highlights of the film.

Then you've got the heavies: James Coburn as the Commodore, the host of the big poker event of the year, and the invaluable Alfred Molina as Angel. Of course, like everyone in Maverick, the Commodore has a few tricks up his sleeve. And Angel is the poor schlub who continues to get duped by Maverick at every turn. Bret Maverick is always one step ahead of you, gentlemen. He knows how to read your tells.

Maverick is as good as it gets for me when it comes to pure well-oiled entertainment. The film helped cement 1994 as one of cinema's greatest of all-time. That year saw some of our best movie stars (Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman) in some of their most memorable roles, and Gibson in Maverick is no exception.

When, if ever, will westerns be this fun again?

"You can't help it, can you? You really are irresistible."


Samantha said...

Love this movie, and absolutely agree about westerns. They are quite often very good films, but they're always such downers. My husband and I agree that the problem is the ambiguity: nobody's really the good guy or the bad guy, so you don't know who to root for, and thus you can't really get into it. Butch Cassidy... was interesting for that reason in that it gave us likeable main characters.

Having re-watched it recently and finding it amusing in its ridiculousness, what is your opinion of The Quick and the Dead? I think it could have been a really impressive movie, given its cast, if not for all those little Raimi-esque touches.

Dave said...

Hey Samantha, thanks for writing. I agree completely with your points re: westerns. They are all "antiheroes" aren't they?

I haven't seen Quick and the Dead since it came out. I remember kind of liking it, but it never really stuck with me. That's a good example of a western that shakes up the conventions of the genre. It was fun, indeed. Just wasn't memorable.


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