December 02, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Mr. Kotter takes on Maverick

When I was a teenager growing up in New York, I had two heroes: old number seven Mickey Mantle and Bret Maverick. I had such hero worship of Mickey Mantle that when taking the field for my junior high school baseball team, I would limp out to my position just like the Mick did.

The first time I saw Maverick on television, I was instantly enthralled by Bret — by his dry sense of humor; by the way he always had a funny line no matter how adverse or even life-threatening his situation; and, of course, by his poker game. And all along, he sprinkled every game with those great stories about his old pappy. Soon, I found myself limping around my neighborhood telling stories about my old pappy.

Well, now I’ve seen all two hours and seven minutes of the Maverick movie on video, and I have to say, honestly, that it should be one hour and forty or forty-five. Screenwriter William Goldman gives us a script that’s full of action with a lot of what seem like obligatory twists and turns. But we would have been better off with one less twist or turn; the movie starts to drag at the end.

As for the acting, Mel Gibson doesn’t seem to have anguished over how he was going to play Bret Maverick. He simply turned Bret Maverick into Mel Gibson, which I guess is great if you’re a Mel Gibson fan. Director Richard Donner also let Mel get away with mugging too much. At times, he could easily be mistaken for Tommy Smothers. Even so, Jodie Foster (as scam artist Annabelle Bransford) and James Garner (as Marshal Zane Cooper) are both top-notch. And the cinematography by the renowned Vilmos Zsigmond is truly magnificent, even on a small screen.

Now for the most important part: The big poker scene at the end is surprisingly realistic. The producers must have had a technical adviser on hand, because the game is right-on. The players’ reactions when they get knocked out of the tournament — some charming, some witty, some angry, some emotionally distraught — are exactly how they really occur. Little touches like the losing players being seated in front of the other spectators when the final four square off brought back personal memories for me.

In short, I have to call this one a win, even if everybody involved isn’t quite playing with a full deck.

Guest critic Gabe Kaplan, best known as TV’s Mr. Kotter, has won such major poker tournaments as the 1980 Superbowl of Poker and 1987’s Knights of the Round Table Champions.

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