The Mild, Mild West

If awards were given on the basis of inoffensiveness, Maverick's would fill a trophy case. Who could get mad at the sight of Mel Gibson mugging his way through another comic role? He's been a mere movie star ever since he left Australia and began acting for Hollywood. It would be churlish to begrudge Jodie Foster a paycheck as easy as the one she collected for this. And it was fine to see the two James boys, Garner and Coburn, here at this intersection between Hollywood's renewed interest in Westerns and the national plunge into gambling.

But if the dim wattage that Maverick generates is any indication, we're not really all that serious about cards or cowboys. Still, the movie won't offend. The filmmakers aim to please -- and they want you to aim too, please, as you toss your money through the box-office window.

As has been widely reported, Maverick's screenplay is by William Goldman, and his work here has been compared, favorably even, with his writing on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And you can see that he was trying to recapture that film's rambling, Western openness. But the episodic result feels more like a television series: thirty minutes of this, thirty more of that.

The first sign that we're in the hands of uninspired filmmakers (with the exception of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who does work so beautiful that it belongs in another movie) comes in the opening scene, in which Brett Maverick (Gibson) is about to be hanged by a group of desperados led by a mustachioed, and therefore evil, Mexicano. (In an attempt not to offend the New World market, the script refers to him as a Spaniard, but we're not fooled.)

Maverick is bound and necktied on his horse, and the bad guys ride away, apparently secure in the knowledge that the horse will eventually walk away from the dead tree to which Maverick is connected, thereby hanging him. To make sure the horse moves, the bad guy throws a burlap sack full of rattlers at the animal's hooves.

This opening scene is a microcosm of what follows. When the horse takes a couple of steps, forcing Maverick to lean back in his saddle, there is a stab of visual comedy. But the fact that the bad guys ride away before Maverick's hanged, thus leaving him a relatively easy escape, tells us that, A) the filmmakers were too lazy to contrive a more spectacular getaway, or B) the villain isn't really much of a villain and he doesn't want to actually see poor Maverick hang. In fact that's how the villain plays, as only half a bad guy.

In general, the characters surrounding Maverick are equally sketchy. Jodie Foster's beauteous lady gambler has the beginnings of interesting duplicity -- Maverick learns to hide his personal effects whenever he embraces her -- but not the middles or endings. She is essentially a nice little ole gal. Compare her character with, say, Shirley MacLaine's hooker-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara, and you'll agree she could have been a mite more developed. Perhaps because their characters are so poorly drawn, Foster and Gibson have about as much chemistry as the pre-Rudy Rockets. And James Garner is so transparently not the law-upholding marshal he's presented as being that you can only wonder when his double-dealing will begin.

The only realized character here is Joseph, an Indian played by Graham Greene. Joseph and his tribe have been hired by a Russian nobleman to give him the savage's tour of the West, and Greene is terrific as a bored and cynical showman. His well-written bit, and his connection with Gibson's Maverick, recall, in fact, a superior James Garner effort, The Skin Game, in which Garner plays a con man who goes around the West selling a black friend and then helping him escape.

I sure was sorry to see Greene go and to have to follow the rest of the movie as it slouched toward the big card game. If you're fooled by a single development here, then I wonder -- could I interest you in a game of cards?

Directed by Richard Donner. With Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner and Graham Greene.

Rated PG.
120 minutes.


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