`Maverick' -- Mel Gibson Leads Big-Name Cast On Fun, But Empty, Romp Through Wild West

Movie review

XX "Maverick," with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner, Alfred Molina, Graham Greene, James Coburn. Directed by Richard Donner, from a screenplay by William Goldman. Cinerama, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Mountlake 9, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Puget Park drive-in, SeaTac North, Snohomish, Valley drive-in. "PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly suggested because of mild violence, mature humor. ----------------------------------------------------------------- With films like "Superman" and the "Lethal Weapon" trilogy to his credit, Richard Donner is one of the most successful directors in mainstream Hollywood, and by making "Maverick" his fourth team-up with "Lethal Weapon" star Mel Gibson, it seems likely that Donner's box-office streak will continue.

So much for empty praise, because Donner is also the most frustratingly artless big-name filmmaker in America today, and his films are the moviegoing equivalent of fluffy pastry: rich, briefly satisfying and utterly devoid of nutritional value.

Of course, as entertainment goes that's not such a bad thing, and with Gibson as his trusty court jester, Donner has geared "Maverick" for maximum appeal, providing all of the witty repartee that made the "Lethal Weapon" movies so popular. Gibson deserves the lion's share of credit in that department; he guarantees a certain degree of unadulterated fun regardless of the movie itself.

But the Donner-Gibson work ethic (such as it is) has grown so lazy that they've begun to spoil their own party. "Maverick" may well be the summer season's first big hit, but it's still a vacuous disappointment, displaying only a minimum of effort from nearly everyone involved.

While a more committed director like Steven Spielberg would invest in the actual telling of a story, Donner's miserable priorities extend to cute in-joke references to his own previous work, cameos for his wife and co-producer (Lauren Shuler Donner) and "Lethal Weapon" co-star Danny Glover, and the incongruous use of contemporary country music for no other reason than to market a soundtrack.

Inspired by the vintage TV Western series that starred James Garner, the story itself is almost beside the point. Gibson plays Bret Maverick, an inveterate gambler, gunslinger and practical joker who is trying to raise the $25,000 entry fee for a big-stakes riverboat poker game. Appearing almost bored with her role, Jodie Foster is the crafty thief who joins Gibson's quest, and Garner is the veteran lawman whose real identity provides a modest surprise near film's end.

At least an hour passes in which nothing of consequence happens, during which veteran screenwriter William Goldman pads the proceedings with a bogus villain (gamely played by Alfred Molina), and a bizarre but oddly amusing detour involving a sarcastic Native American (Graham Greene) who bilks money from a Russian duke by posing as a stereotypical Indian wilderness guide. It's one of the movie's funnier passages, but it stops the story in its tracks.

"Maverick" is certainly not without its pleasures. Gibson is effortlessly amusing even when he's slumming in a zero-challenge role, Goldman's dialogue is often lively and the lavish production has been lovingly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond on glorious locations in Northern California, Yosemite Valley and the Columbia River Gorge.

But by the time Donner crowds his climactic poker game with a bevy of veteran Western character actors, decades of movie tradition have been reduced to window dressing, and "Maverick" leaves you hungry for the real thing.