BASED on a popular television show of the 1950s, the new ``Maverick'' conjures up an era when westerns exercised a ferociously strong hold on the American imagination.
Theaters were jammed with ``oaters'' of all sorts, ranging from ``psychological'' westerns by Anthony Mann to minimalist dissections of the genre by Budd Boetticher, plus an endless string of formula-bound horse operas that shared the same simple plots and the same simple repertoire of variations. You couldn't escape them on the airwaves, either, where kiddie shows with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry rubbed elbows with ``adult westerns'' like ``Gunsmoke'' and the relatively exotic ``Have Gun, Will Travel,'' among many others.
``Maverick'' stood with the most popular of the TV westerns, thanks largely to its flexible format - the presence of two handsome good guys, Bret and Bart, helped the series seem fresh week after week - and to its lively sense of humor, often poking fun at its own heroics and the situations that gave rise to them. It was a likable show, more enjoyable than much of the competition.
The studio marketeers who decided to produce a film version of ``Maverick'' in 1994 immediately ran against a major hurdle: Bret Maverick, the most beloved of the show's regular characters, was played by James Garner, who's still an attractive presence but no longer the fresh-faced young man who graced TV sets nearly four decades ago.
Should a different actor be recruited to play Bret, thereby calling the whole point of a ``Maverick'' movie into question? Or should the title role go to Garner despite his years, thereby aiming the project at an age group considerably older than the teen and young-adult crowd?
Faced with this dilemma, the marketeers chose both solutions at once, although I can't discuss this further without giving away one of the film's many surprises. Suffice it to say that Bret Maverick is appealingly played by Mel Gibson, as much a star in the '90s as Garner ever was in the '50s, and that Garner is prominently on hand as a marshall who travels, feuds, and bonds with Bret over the course of a two-hour plot with more than its share of twists.
Aside from its clever casting, the most noteworthy thing about ``Maverick'' is the professionalism of the picture. It was made by a conspicuously polished group including director Richard Donner, screenwriter William Goldman, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and composer Randy Newman.
Professional doesn't mean inspired, of course, and little about ``Maverick'' lingers in the mind once the final image has faded from the screen. But it's cleverly crafted, and you can't help enjoying it even when you know it's manipulating you as brazenly as a poker dealer with tricky fingers and a well-stacked deck.
The story loses no time announcing its degree of subtlety: The credits have barely finished before we see Maverick astride a fidgety horse with a noose around his neck, a rattlesnake slithering in his direction, and bad guys roaring with delight at his imminent demise. A flashback tells us how our hero landed in this predicament, and then we watch the escapades that follow his escape.
The plot zings along rapidly, allowing us few chances to catch our breath and ruminate on how silly this all is. The filmmakers are eager to relieve us of any obligation to think, programming all our reactions and making up their own rules as they go along. Key dialogue is repeated over and over, to make sure we'll know what's going on even if we've spent the last 10 minutes at the popcorn counter. Lest we fail to notice that the poker dealer is cheating, the movie slips into slow-motion as he slides a card off the bottom of his deck. If a scene drags, rock music erupts on the soundtrack - a tad anachronistic, but good for a jolt to regain our attention.
CLEARLY relishing their roles, the performers have a great time amid this frivolity. Gibson brings to Maverick a touch of the high-grade hysteria that he patented in ``Lethal Weapon,'' also directed by Donner, as if his recent solemnity in ``Hamlet'' and ``The Man Without a Face'' now legitimizes all the goofiness he cares to throw at us. Garner reestablishes his status as an engaging star with one of the most winning smiles in the business.
In other important roles, Jody Foster shows a solid flair for comedy as a beguiling woman who's no more trustworthy than the slippery men surrounding her, and James Coburn steals more than one scene as proprietor of the riverboat poker tournament that gives the story its climax. Alfred Molina, one of the most gifted characters actors around, is perfect as the most dastardly villain. And certainly not least, Graham Greene is superb as an Indian chief.
Since one of the things that drastically cut back the western genre after the '50s was the skepticism bred by ultraviolent westerns like ``The Wild Bunch'' and ``The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,'' it's encouraging to note that ``Maverick'' keeps its gunplay and fistfights within bounds. Credit for this goes to director Donner and screenwriter Goldman, and perhaps also to cinematographer Zsigmond, who has spoken out against excessive gore. ``Maverick'' has a visual appeal the small screen could never equal.
* ``Maverick'' is rated PG. It contains some violence.