FILM REVIEWS / Trouble in the Old West: Adam Mars-Jones on Maverick, a crisis of confidence served up with a sickly grin

Adam Mars-Jones
Thursday 14 July 1994 23:02

Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent film, Last Action Hero, showed what happens when a standard movie genre is treated with irony, and the new Richard Donner western, Maverick (PG) achieves the same lavish hollowness. It has a second-hand self-consciousness that denies prevents it from hitting either possible target, freshness or sophistication. It may be a virtue when high art seems to stare back at its audience, but it's certainly tedious when absolutely mainstream entertainment can't stop winking at us.

The script is notionally based on the old television series of the same name, but the screenwriter William Goldman, has produced something depressingly up to date in its incoherence, its crisis of confidence served up with a sickly grin. The Goldman of Maverick seems not to believe in the past even as a myth to be explored or a convention to be overturned (as he did when he wrote Butch Cassidy) and has no idea of how he would want a hero to behave.

When Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) meets the baddie, Angel (Alfred Molina), he gives us his reactions in a voiceover straight from a Chandler film: 'I smelled trouble, and refried beans.' Angel goes one better, by using the language of movie posters: 'Maverick was mine anyway, but this time it's personal.' Maverick is trying to raise 25 grand, the entry fee for a poker championship, a sum grotesquely inflated from 19th-century values presumably to engage a contemporary audience without imposing the drudgery of multiplying up to produce a modern equivalent.

The decor is every bit as authentic. The town where we spend the first half hour of the film is raw and unfinished at one end, as if in homage to its director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, responsible for McCabe and Mrs Miller (certainly Zsigmond is the only contributor to Maverick who gets anything new out of the West, with some lovely atmospheric shimmerings). The rest of the town is ludicrously plush. At the climactic poker game, likewise, the chips in their primary colours are clearly aspiring to the condition of plastic. At one point, Maverick remarks that 'news travels fast in the Old West'. Possibly true, but it wasn't old at the time.

In the course of the film, Maverick meets up with old friends, who invariably cheat or betray him, and enemies who often turn out to be feigning hostility. This doesn't amount to anything as grand as a theme of appearances being deceptive, it's a rejigging of a formula that soon becomes formulaic in its own right. The double-crossings carry no moral weight, and the 'surprise' back-stage allegiances just make nonsense of earlier confrontations.

The word 'maverick' implies someone who uses unorthodox methods for honourable ends, but the film can't make up its mind what that actually means. The trouble is that to a modern audience virtue looks corny or unbelievable, but dishonesty has lost a lot of its charm. The film leaves open the most basic questions about its card-playing, gun-toting hero, namely: is he a cheat? And: is he a crackshot?

Logically, someone who promises, as he joins a poker game, that he will lose for the first hour, keeps his word, and then starts relentlessly winning is relying on something other than luck. The film makes much of Maverick's sensitivity to 'tells', physical indications that someone is or is not bluffing. Fair enough: the hero as a man of wiles is a tradition as old as Odysseus, but the film pushes beyond this. In the climactic hand, Maverick simply wills the desired card to the top of the deck, a feat which is a sort of apotheosis of cheating, card-sharping on the astral plane.

His marksmanship is even more of a problem. If Maverick infallibly hits everything he aims at, where's his heroism? But if he doesn't, why should we admire him for being second rate? At first, Maverick pretends to be a coward, but then shows off a supernaturally quick draw which makes his early refusals of provocation look sly. This cycle repeats itself at a higher level of expertise: he admits that he's quick on the draw but maintains that he 'can't hit shit'. This statement is both borne out and refuted in the first scene of actual gunplay, where he does indeed miss his targets but immobilises them indirectly, hitting rocks that fall on their heads and so on. This scenario has the advantage of satisfying a code of conduct higher than anything he actually professes, a reluctance to take life.

The mode of Maverick is comedy, but that label isn't enough to make time spent in the presence of insincerity worthwhile. Dances with Wolves contained virtually nothing of the century in which it was set, but at least put its money where its anachronist mouth was. Maverick starts off being knowing about the Red Indian / Native American issue - the crucial marker for revisionist westerns - and then backslides.

Early on, the hero ironically blames the Indians for their troubles: 'Reckon it's their fault for being on our land before we got here.' He's smart enough to know that a raid supposedly carried out by Indians is in fact the work of imposters. But then when real Indians put in their appearance, they too are imposters in the sense that they are entirely Americanised, and earn a living by parodying themselves.

The scenes between Maverick and Joseph the Indian chief (played by Graham Greene, best known for Dances with Wolves) are the only authentically amusing things in the film, but it's dispiriting, too, that the alternative to treating Native Americans as absolutely Other seems to be assimililating them absolutely as theme-park franchisers before their time. Their differences dwindle to a unique selling point.

Maverick isn't a surprise move for Mel Gibson, who has made a career out of being charming, but it is for Jodie Foster, who seemed to have made one out of not being charming, or at least not being ingratiating. Her character, Annabelle, pickpocket, gambler and loose woman, all more or less manquee, drops out of the poker championship because she can't control her body - her 'tells' are legible to her male competitors. On another level, she is content to bow out of the world of male rivalry because she has just been sexually satisfied. Foster proves that she can shake her curls with the best of them, if that was something she needed to prove.

The makers of Maverick don't seem unduly convinced by the romance between the principals but then it's remarkable how little conviction they can muster for any of the characters' motives. Sexual desire, hunger for justice or revenge, even the profit motive, all have been played out long before the film, already past the two-hour mark, flails about desperately to contrive an ending for itself. In this year of many westerns, Maverick displays, quite without meaning to but with a clarity that is almost cruel, all the reasons why the genre went into decline in the first place.

(Photograph omitted)

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