The cast is adorable, the characters are foolproof, the late-’50s TV Western on which it is based is fondly remembered even by people who weren’t born when James Garner played the title role. But the tell, as cardsharps would say, that Maverick is something of a cheat occurs in the first line of the haphazardly employed voice-over by the new Bret Maverick, Mel Gibson: ”It had just been a shitty week for me from the beginning.” From which any moviesharp can determine that: (1) Bret is a contempo, wisecracking kind of hombre with a very ’90s vocabulary; (2) Maverick is a contempo, wisecracking interpretation of the TV original; (3) director Richard Donner (accustomed to working super-successfully with Gibson, who played a wisecracking undercover cop in all three Lethal Weapons) and writer William Goldman took a lazy ’90s route, relying on haphazard voice-over, heavy-handed parody, and with-it words like ”shitty” to fill in all the places where true deft wit is just plum missing from this good-natured, flat-footed, eager-to- please, tee-hee Western.
What with budgets and star packages being the big investments they are, I suppose it’s no use pining nostalgic for the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — Goldman’s bright, witty, Oscar-winning script of 25 years ago that assumed an audience was sophisticated enough to get the punchlines on its own. But it is worth pointing out that people who like Westerns — and, indeed, people who enjoy Gibson’s charismatic combo of sex appeal, humor, and a dashing hint of the unhinged — don’t need to be hit over the head like ornery mules to get a joke.
There are plenty of jokes in Maverick, most involving who pulls the last con on whom: Maverick or Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster), a talented scam artist herself who tangles with Bret a la Hepburn and Tracy; Maverick or Zane Cooper (James Garner), the less-than-by-the-book marshal whose slow-paced drollness sometimes lapses into an old man’s shamble; Maverick or Joseph (Graham Greene), the savvy Indian chief who calls his buddy ”Mav” and who, in a clever tweaking of Hollywood’s current sensitivity to Native Americans, plays up his Me Big Chief Red Man stereotype to his advantage. But at every step of Mav’s journey to get to the big poker game that just might win him half a million greenbacks, Donner draws up the horses, circles the wagons, kicks us in the ribs, and whinnies, Get it? Get it?
Yes! Yes, we get it already, we want to neigh, until eventually we understand how Sundance felt, cornered with Butch by the posse and forced to jump from a cliff to rushing water far below. ”Ohhhhh Shiiiiit!” he hollered, and the words were just right.