I first saw Maverick in the cinema when it was released in 1994. It is that rare thing, a film I went back to see several times, then bought as soon as I was able to. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched it.
The film was directed by Richard Donner, who had just finished the third Lethal Weapon. Look for an uncredited cameo by Danny Glover that spoofs these films and makes me laugh out loud every time I see it. Donner does the same thing with this film as he did with his previous trio. He takes a standard movie trope, in this case a western as opposed to an action movie, and just has fun with it. The film exploits every western cliché you can think of (gunfights, gamblers, a runaway stagecoach, a hanging in the desert, Indians in war paint), then turns them into comedy gold.
It was written by William Goldman, who wrote the other great comedy western of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not only did Goldman borrow heavily from that film, he threw in more than a passing nod to the other great Newman/Redford classic, The Sting.
For this story is a series of cons. Nothing and no one is whom they first appear to be. True to the nature of a film about gamblers, everyone is bluffing everyone else all the time. This is where the fun comes in.
James Garner played Bret Maverick on television for three years at the end of the 1950s, one of his first major roles. In this film, the role of Maverick is taken over by Mel Gibson who plays the part with glee. Jodie Foster joins them as Annabelle Bransford in one of her few comic roles. She, too, plays her part with obvious joy. Garner plays Zane (Coop) Cooper, a lawman.
Supporting these three are some of the best actors playing spoofs of roles they have played many times before. Graham Greene plays an Indian who not only has the best line of the movie, he is much more than any stereotype. Alfred Molina plays the heavy, but with a twinkle in his eye. James Coburn plays an old gambler with such élan, you almost end up rooting for him. The big gambling scene is filled with familiar faces, both from westerns of the past and country music singers at the time.
But, the best performance is Garner’s. Relying a bit on Jim Rockford’s dryness and sardonic wit, Garner plays Coop with a warmth and a presence that makes the film for me. It would have been easy for his role to be entirely an homage to the man who originated the role all those years ago. Instead, he is the heart of this film. It is up to him to reveal the final con/twist at the end of the movie. He does it brilliantly. Even better, the second time through the film, you can see where Garner chose to drop hints as to what that twist is.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack to this film. The songs are perfect and sung by country music royalty, at least the royalty of twenty years ago. I was only beginning to listen to country when this film came out. It helped to cement my love of it that continues to this day. The best song is a version of "Amazing Grace." It is my favorite version of my favorite hymn.
When I think of films I love, many of them are profound and speak to me on an intensely personal level. This light piece of fluff does not do that. What it does, however, is transport me for two hours away from my daily life to a place where people are witty, the good guys win, and James Garner is alive, well, and sardonic. Rest in peace.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.