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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Donner goes lighter with Mel as Maverick

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Timed to the release of Seth MacFarlane’s oater spoof A Million Ways To Die In The West, we single out some favorite Western-comedies.


Maverick (1994)

In the mid-’90s, in between Lethal Weapon sequels, Richard Donner and Mel Gibson made two movies that attempted to stretch their partnership beyond the buddy-comedy flash of their signature series. Conspiracy Theory pushed their dynamic darker, while the PG-rated Maverick went lighter, casting Gibson in the role made famous on television by James Garner. Garner himself appears as Marshal Zane Cooper, a mediator of sorts between Maverick and his conniving fellow poker player Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster) as they endeavor to scrape up enough money to enter a poker tournament with a $25,000 buy-in.

Gibson’s Bret Maverick stands apart from many other western comedies in that he’s not a sheriff, a full-on outlaw, or mistakenly pressed into duty as either—just a cardsharp whose quick draw belies his lack of gunfighting acumen. That’s one of the movie’s many deceptions and misdirections. But while Maverick is as much a con-artist picture as a western, Maverick’s cons have an odd seed of honesty; he really does want to play in that tournament, and seeks money primarily from those who owe him actual debts. Most of his scams involve extricating himself from scrapes: getting his wallet back from Annabelle, staging fights to make himself look more fearsome, or teaming up with his American Indian buddy (Graham Greene), whose tribe makes money by faking Indian cliches for a Russian Grand Duke. The poker milieu is appropriate because Maverick‘s Old West ultimately functions as a series of comically elaborate bluffs.

Donner skips through these bluffs, not in a particular hurry to get anywhere—he nearly stops the movie cold to trot out Danny Glover for a cameo (wherein he must both exchange protracted don’t-I-know-you looks with Gibson and, in case some people don’t get it, have him mutter something about getting too old for this shit). He and Gibson indulge a fair amount of cornball wiseacre shtick, but that shtick has an old-timey lack of bombast. This is a movie where the climax is a riverboat gambling trip, albeit one with a few slapstick stunts thrown in. Maverick presents the western-comedy as a more playful contrast to its action-comedy cousins—particularly those that get nervous about blowing up enough stuff to placate its fans.

Availability: Maverick is available on DVD and Blu-ray, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.