Dir. by Richard Donner
Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner
Bret Maverick, a professional gambler in the late 1800s, finds himself $3000 short of the entrance fee for an elite poker tournament with a $500,000 cash prize (about $12 million in today’s dollars). To obtain it, he engages in a series of comic misadventures, accompanied by a female con artist and an exasperated lawman.
Unlike a lot of Baby Boomer-aged American parents, my father was never particularly into Westerns while I was growing up (or if he was, I never really noticed). I never saw most of the classics of the genre, and had to seek them out on VHS and DVD when I was older. This was one of the few exceptions to that. I don’t recall seeing it in theaters, but it was one that we’d bring along on trips on VHS (we used to haul around a small tube TV in the minivan for road trips).
I was very interested to see how this particular one would hold up, as I haven’t seen it since before Mel Gibson’s infamous drunk driving arrest. It’s also a Wild West comedy from almost thirty years ago, which opens it up to all sorts of potential tropes that have not aged particularly well in the intervening decades. Fortunately, other than a couple of quibbles I found that I really didn’t have all that much to complain about.
It helps that the movie clearly doesn’t take itself all that seriously. The 1960s television show that it was based on had comedic overtones from the start, but here they wisely turned the movie remake into a full-blown comedy. A lot of clichéd Western tropes get repeatedly upended and subverted, from Maverick paying off a gang in advance to throw a fistfight to make him look better, to the Native American war band that speaks fluent English but makes a big threatening show (with Maverick’s help) just to troll his traveling companions.
It was actually this last group that I was most worried about, as Westerns involving Native Americans have aged probably the worst out of all of them. It turns out that this might actually be the smartest part of the movie. Chief Joseph’s tribe is portrayed very positively, while avoiding a lot of the “noble savage” or “mystical Native American” tropes common at the time (see: Dances With Wolves).
No, all of the war paint and drums are explicitly because they are being paid by a wealthy European to provide an “authentic” Western experience based on dime novels. Joseph is actually quite cynical about the whole thing, but is willing to take the Duke’s money anyway as it will benefit the tribe. He and Maverick eventually use the Duke’s desire for clichéd tropes against him to secure Maverick’s entrance fee, conning him into a fake “Injun hunt” so that he can fulfill his cowboy fantasies, and then blackmailing him with threatened jail time over the “murder” that he thinks he committed. It acknowledges the existence of these tropes, while simultaneously turning them back on those who would insist on them.
Now, as I said earlier, I did indeed have some problems. Most of them have to do with two characters: Jodie Foster’s Annabelle and Alfred Molina’s villain Angel. Or, rather, the way Maverick treats both of those characters. Through her actions, Annabelle is shown to be both an exceptional con artist and an expert gambler. She gets the better of Maverick on multiple occasions, is cool under pressure, and seems to be quite taken with him. Maverick, however, spends a good half of the movie mocking her skills and trolling her at every opportunity, and I couldn’t help but think of Mel Gibson’s off-screen behavior while watching it. He even asks her to clean his clothes for him, because “surely you must know how.”
Likewise, the character of Angel, who is identified as a Spaniard in dialogue but is coded as Mexican throughout the movie, is introduced as smelling of “refried beans.” He is portrayed in the worst light of any of the characters in the movie – even more so than his boss, Commodore Duvall, the actual main villain of the movie.
Overall, I did end up enjoying the movie quite a bit on this rewatch, way more than I had been expecting to. I found it to be a generally entertaining comedy, with a lot of con artist movie elements thrown in for good measure. If you can stomach Mel Gibson (and I know there are some who can’t), it might be worth a spin or two.
-At least this movie manages to avoid any noticeable brownface. Chief Joseph is played by actual Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, and although Alfred Molina is British he is the son of a Spanish immigrant, which matches the character’s stated nationality from the movie.
-There are also a LOT of cameos in this movie. Most notably, Danny Glover robs the bank where Maverick is attempting to get a loan repaid to him. Gibson seems to recognize him, and the Lethal Weapon music plays as he leaves the bank.
-I remember the climactic poker tournament as being the finale of the movie, maybe the last 15 minutes or so. I was quite surprised to find that it actually starts just over halfway through, and takes up a good third of the film.