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