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‘Maverick’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1994

Everybody's a joker and everything's wild in the game new "Maverick," a gaudy reincarnation of the TV series with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner flashing diamonds, breaking hearts and clubbing cliches damn near to death. Alternately a celebration and sendup of cowboy conventions, the movie lingers over a stunning Western landscape only to be spurred on by the principals' inexhaustible supply of escapades. The burr under the saddle: There's just too much of everything.

Gibson, for one, can't find a camera angle that doesn't suit him, but doggone if that little scamp doesn't look a picture in Maverick's frilly duds. And even with the original Maverick as his sidekick, he makes the role his own with a performance that owes as much to the hysteric detective Gibson portrayed in "Lethal Weapon" as it does to Garner's good-natured TV gambler.

Screenwriter William Goldman comes up with an ingenious way of introducing Bret Maverick's sanguine savoir-faire: a cliffhanger that finds our hero alone with a noose around his neck, astride a skittish horse encircled by rattlesnakes. Bret hasn't really mastered the term "whoa," but as he explains in a dispassionate voice-over, "it had just been a {lousy} week." Just how lousy we learn in the flashback that takes up the film's first half.

On his way to a high-stakes poker championship in St. Louie, Bret is lured into a game by the coquettish Annabelle Bransford (Foster), a cardsharp and pickpocket who is also bound for the big game. Bret wins the pot and Annabelle's attention, but he incurs the enmity of a shady hombre (Alfred Molina) who shadows him out of town the next day.

Bret and Annabelle share a stagecoach east with a taciturn lawman, Zane Cooper (Garner, in fine fettle as second fiddle), and the three are soon bantering their brains out as they set off on a series of rollicking adventures. But mostly they quip and caper like ponies in a carrot patch. Foster, who throws herself into this flirty role, makes Miss Kitty look like an old sourpuss, and whether it's five-card stud or a studly card player, she knows when to hold 'em and when to walk away.

Director Richard Donner, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know when enough is enough. He sets a blistering pace, only letting up when the audience is too exhausted to appreciate a softer, quieter scene. One sequence, which features the gorgeous Graham Greene as a hip Indian, is embarrassing in its tasteless excess. By the time we finally arrive at the climactic steamboat poker tourney, we're stuffed with fun and ready to rake in the chips and go home. But not so fast, pardner. There's plenty more to come.

Ultimately "Maverick" is so clever it doesn't make a lick of sense. Goldman plunders his own classics, "The Sting" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," for plot and other westerns for spoofable cliches -- the runaway stagecoach, the pillaged wagon train, Indian war parties -- but it's ultimately one big con job.

"Maverick" is rated PG for cussing, brawling and kissing something other than your horse.

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