A gambling cowboy is determined to enter a huge poker tournament but the only problem is, he is short of another $3,000 before he can enter so with the help of his rabble of friends, he sets about collecting all his debts, while gambling a little naturally, to raise the entrance fee.
This latest big-screen return of a well-loved Golden Age Of TV series trawls deeper than the baby boom demographics addressed by mid-60s retro-items such as The Addams Family, The Flintstones and The Fugitive. Maverick began in 1957 and ran until 1962, though original star James Garner left in 1960, which means audiences for the movie remake are unlikely to have more than a folk memory of the unconventional Western series, which set out to undercut the upright heroes of the era by following a cowardly con-man who was less interested in law and order than profit and loss.
Richard Donner and screenwriter William Goldman have wisely chosen to treat their inspiration with a great deal of respect. While Mel Gibson takes over the lead role of Bret Maverick, the film calls Garner back to play a part which very cleverly expands one of his roles on the forgotten show. Gibson, who has an unnerving tendency to seem less roguish than sneaky, acquits himself well enough to earn approving nods from Garner, though it's hard not to think that in his day Garner would have done better work in most of Mad Mel's leads.
The film opens with Maverick in a tricky situation, then ropes in a posse of supporting characters (flighty gambling belle Foster, man of integrity Marshal Garner, scurvy poker demon Alfred Molina) and gets round to a plot involving a massive cards tournament held on a riverboat by James Coburn. It seems like a simple traipse from exciting incident to hair's breadth escape (there are funny variations on traditional Western action scenes from Stagecoach to A Man Called Horse), but towards the end things get trickier with a series of twists entirely in tune with the snake oil charm of the series.
After the intense dramatics and revisionary grit of Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, it's a relief to see a Western get back to the fun and spectacle of the genre, and Donner relishes the screen-filling landscapes. This even has Graham Greene doing a sly send-up of Dances With Wolves as a pragmatic Indian offering authentic native American holiday packages for loony Russian aristo Paul L. Smith.
One of the incidental pleasures of the movie is the canny casting: practically every bar room or card table face is familiar from years of TV and film Westerns, and the big game finale allows cameos from the likes of Doug McClure (Trampas from The Virginian) and Henry Darrow (Manolito from The High Chaparral). Fans of more recent vintage get nice joke appearances from a couple of unbilled stars who have worked with Donner and Gibson, and it's even a nostalgic delight to see the usually strait-laced Foster playing the sort of comic vamp part she last took in Bugsy Malone. Good solid fun.
Mel Gibson was in his mid-90's prime when he made this remake of the successful TV series. The plot is one the original writers would have been proud of and with Garner, himself, appearing it gives the film a seal of approval. A rare performance from Foster who is surprisingly funny and Molina giving a good supporting performance, it's an enjoyable family film.