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TAMING THE WEST

This is what things have come to. Hollywood has spent $60 million on a Western movie derived from an old TV show that borrowed heavily from earlier Westerns, which were in turn based on dime novels that glamorized beyond recognition what actually happened on the American frontier.

Naturally, the star of the new movie is an Australian.
For better or worse, Richard Donner's Maverick is the leadoff man in this year's cutthroat summer movie war. It probably has the star power to become a blockbuster--no Harrison Ford and no dinosaurs, but plenty of Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner--and it's pretty to look at. But its reheated Laurel and Hardy slapstick and crude farce grate against the grandeur of the settings and Donner's wild stabs at romance. Action star Gibson, decked out in a silk shirt from Paris and a flat American accent for the title role, announces at the outset: "It had been a shitty week." That's no $60 million line of narration (despite the presence of blue-chip screenwriter William Goldman), and for more than two hours the movie can't help going for cheap laughs.

In a riverside boomtown we catch sight of a taco stand. A masked bank robber turns out to be the uncredited Danny Glover, Gibson's Lethal Weapon partner. And the obligatory Indian chief (Graham Greene) is a con man wearing war paint for the benefit of a rich Rus-sian tourist who's paying him plenty for a glimpse of the real West. Why does he do it? The Russians are "assholes," he explains, but the tribe "had kind of a lousy year."

There's nothing real about Maverick, but it's intermittently entertaining. As in the three Lethal Weapons he's made with director Donner, Gibson proves adept at deadpan humor. As in the old TV series starring Garner, which went off the air 32 years ago, his new Bret Maverick is a debonair card shark who sometimes doesn't handle a Colt .44 very well and would just as soon slink out of town with his winnings as face a fight with the bad guys.

Writer Goldman, who put the romantic humor in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, tries hard to repeat those memorable effects, but there's a punning, cartoonish quality to his work here. "The minute I saw this hombre," Our Hero says of mustachioed villain Alfred Molina, "I smelled trouble--and refried beans." Such stuff is more Mel Brooks than Mel Gibson, but the movie doesn't seem to know it.

Foster lightens up here as Annabelle Bransford, a poker-playing scam artist in her own right clearly based on the Samantha Crawford character from the TV series. But she's no queen of comedy. About the third time Annabelle picks Bret's pocket in the middle of a hot embrace, the joke wears out its welcome. But that doesn't stop the moviemakers from laying on more and working Foster's coquettishness to a fare-thee-well.

Meanwhile, Garner, whose casting contains a nostalgic joke you see coming a mile away, is now a slick old lawman, Zane Cooper, who becomes the third contestant in the film's who-can-outcon-whom sweepstakes. In the finale, everyone winds up in a high-stakes poker game on a paddle wheeler, and you just know the half-million in cash will change hands a couple of times via double-cross and ruse. This is also where James Coburn pops up for a star turn as a riverboat gambler with larceny on his mind, too.

There's something prefab and overcalculated about all Western movie spoofs, from Cat Ballou to Blazing Saddles. The makers are always jabbing the audience in the ribs and saying, C'mon, you never really believed all that John Wayne hero jive, didja? Well, no, we didn't. But when a picture tries to have things both ways--frontier romanticism and broad farce--both effects are usually diminished. That's the problem with Maverick, despite its high spirits and higher budget.

 
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