Maniacal 'Maverick' doesn't have a plot or a plan, but it has fun

May 20, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Because of a production error, the rating of the movie "Maverick" was incorrect in yesterday's Maryland Live section. Stephen Hunter had rated it a 2 1/2 -star movie.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Luck is still the lady that he loves the best. "Maverick" does everything wrong, is sloppy, lazy, nearly plotless, completely pointless -- and a blast.

The movie is a walking testament to the principle of better living ++ through electricity. There may be a plot somewhere in William Goldman's script, and there might even have been a structure, but Mel Gibson, James Garner and Jodie Foster are so highly charged, as they slide through riffs that have nothing to do with anything except their own enjoyment in being invited to the party, that it's magnetic -- at least for most of the time. (At two hours and 10 minutes, the movie is way too long.)

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The film opens to discover Bret Maverick (Gibson) abandoned in the desert. On his horse. With his hands tied behind his back. And a noose around his neck. From that perch, the gambling man recounts the misadventures that brought him to this sorry spot. Why the frame story and flashback device? There's no reason at all, except to provide a kind of artificial tension, which is resolved at the halfway point to no great import.

In fact, the one hallmark of the script is that there's no reason for anything to happen. Goldman, a great proponent of story structure in his book on screenwriting, appears to have forgotten every lesson he wrote.

Set in a generic, theme-park West, the movie doesn't have much umph. The one-horsepower motor that drives it is Maverick's need to raise $25,000 to get to and enter a $500,000 poker tournament in St. Louis, as opposed by three bad guys who have been mysteriously hired to prevent him. As he travels by stagecoach, his fate is inexplicably bound up in those of fellow travelers Garner, as famous lawman Zane Cooper, and Foster, as wannabe con woman Annabelle Bransford.

"Stagecoach" it isn't; frankly, it isn't even one of the better episodes of "Maverick," circa 1958. Mostly, the little events packed into the extremely gentle arc of the story turn on the same device -- a crude twist where it will be revealed that some development we believed in (a fight, a theft, an argument) was really a con. Goldman pulls this extremely mangy rabbit from his even mangier hat a dozen times, and the last few minutes are so crazed with rabbits and hats that it drives you to distraction.

I had to laugh at a warning on the press notes requesting that reviewers not reveal the ending. Which ending would that be?

But it's clear that the three principals have extraordinary good will toward each other, and they interact like three kernels of popcorn in a skillet. Gibson has conceived his gambler as somewhat more athletic and less elegant than Garner's original; but that's OK, because Garner is pretty much playing the original, a laid-back, extremely droll and bemused masculine presence. His repose may be a bit more ingratiating than Gibson's puplike ebullience.

The surprise is Foster, in a role written for Meg Ryan. She has stated that she chose the comedy to retool an image rather heavily freighted with darker themes -- "The Accused," "The Silence of the Lambs" and so forth. And it works. Her Annabelle is a feisty, cunning, shrewd and funny concoction, particularly as she exploits the subtle sexual tension between Garner and Gibson to her advantage.

Gibson is radiant. Like a healthy young dog, he bounds all over the place, knocking into tables and chairs, quipping desperately, showing that edge of mania that made his Martin Riggs so interesting in the "Lethal Weapon" movies. He's clearly among friends: The director is his old pal Richard Donner, who did all the "Weapons" films.

Donner, a slickster's slickster, has never been accused of making anything too deep, and he certainly lives down to that reputation here.

But somewhere about halfway through Hour Two, you might find yourself looking at your watch and wondering, 'Like, when is this movie going to begin?' It's not that you've had a bad time; it's just that there's so little going on that at some deeper level you may begin to yearn for an actual event. Is that so much to ask of a $50 million movie?

It's significant to this ramshackle structure that the long climax, set aboard a riverboat, has almost nothing to do with the hour and a half that precedes it -- it's more arbitrary than inevitable. In fact, it blithely reinvents some of the characters. Albert Molina, who for 90 minutes has been the grizzled gunhawk trying to prevent Gibson from reaching the boat, suddenly emerges as a champion poker player in his own right. It doesn't matter, you say? Well, then why show him in the first sequence as a bad poker player? If Goldman forgot his own book, maybe Donner forgot the first half of his own movie.

Then there's the slightly embarrassing fact that the best comic performance in the film is provided by Graham Greene, as a grouchy, put-upon Indian chief. It's hysterical, but you won't remember it as you walk out because the long sequence where NTC Gibson puts up with the tribe had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie!

"Maverick" proves it's much better to be lucky than good.

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear movie critic Stephen Hunter read his published reviews, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

"Maverick"

Starring Mel Gibson, James Garner and Jodie Foster

Directed by Richard Donner

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

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