You know, I wonder why David Mamet hasn’t written a movie about poker yet, it being so popular with the young’uns these days.

Maverick starts at the protagonist’s Second-Act Low Point. He has a noose around his neck with the rope around a tree branch, atop his horse, with a burlap sack full of snakes at his feet.

The bad guys could have just shot him, but that’s the way it goes. They could have just taken out one of their guns and shot him and left him in the desert and stolen his horse. Hell, they could have just stolen his horse, that would have been enough. But no, they tie him to a tree branch, with his horse, and throw a bag of snakes at his feet. That means that the bag of snakes was part of their plan to begin with. Yes, they left town and rode out into the desert with a bag of snakes in order to put Maverick in this life-threatening position, and then they rode away.

BAD GUY 1: Okay guys, we got to stop Maverick from getting to the big card game. There’s a half a million dollars at stake, and that’s a lot of money, so it is absolutely essential that he not get to the big card game. Understand me? Okay. Here’s the plan: we capture him, hit him on the head, put a noose around his neck, put him back on his horse, find a tree in the middle of nowhere, wake him up, throw the bag of snakes on the ground, and ride away. It’s foolproof.

BAD GUY 2: Why don’t we just shoot him?

BAD GUY 1: Who asked you?

BAD GUY 3: Where do we get a bag of snakes?

BAD GUY 1: Snakes R Us, they’re having a three-for-the-price-of-two sale.

Anyway, Mel Gibson, as Maverick, is there tied to a tree, inches away from certain death. He looks up at heaven and prays to God, saying that if God will get him out of this situation, he will do anything — anything — to make it up to him.

SPOILER ALERT: Maverick makes it out of the dire situation and goes on to the big card game.

I can’t watch this scene without thinking that what is going through Mel Gibson’s head is: “Dear God, if you get me out of this grinning, happy-go-lucky movie star life of mine, I will never forget it and I will do anything — anything — to make it up to you.”

Religion, and its cousin Belief, weaves through Maverick. There are a handful of direct references to Jesus and God; Mel rides into town on an ass, and mid-way through the movie, there’s a fifteen-minute set piece where he goes out of his way to recover the money stolen from a group of women trying to set up a mission, even though they reveal themselves to be chisling, dishonest and hypocritical.

But is Maverick really about a man’s relationship to God? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, God comes through for Maverick when he needs him (and vice versa, I suppose), but on the other hand, one of the last lines of the movie is something like “There is no more deeply moving religious experience than cheating a cheater,” which, the last time I checked, does not come from the New Testament.

That line is followed by a conversation about a trick that Maverick pulls off at the climax of the movie. In this scene, Mel has 4/5 of a royal flush and is lacking only the Ace. He places his belief in the card, and lo, it is so; the Ace of spades turns up and the day, and Mel, is saved.

So, right after the joshing “religious experience” line, James Garner says to Mel something like “Hey, how did you pull off that Ace of Spades trick?” and Mel says, hardly believing it himself, “Magic.” Magic, of course, being the secular word for God.

There is a phrase that courses through Maverick (screeplay by the great William Goldman): “Just Teasing.” And in a way, the whole movie is Just Teasing. When Mel gets beaten up, it’s Just Teasing, and when he beats someone up, well, that’s Just Teasing too. When Mel acts the fool, that’s Just Teasing and when he steps up and defends someone’s life, that’s Just Teasing too. When someone says they’ll give you the money they owe you, they’re Just Teasing, and when they finally give it to you, that’s Just Teasing too. When a woman kisses you, she’s Just Teasing, and when you kiss her back, that’s Just Teasing too. Even an Indian attack is Just Teasing. Everything in the movie, it seems, is Just Teasing, except that magic Ace of Spades. That, the movie insists, is real.

If the magic Ace of Spades is the pole star for Maverick, money is the only thing that anyone cares about or respects in the young nation that Maverick journeys through. It solves problems, binds wounds, brings lovers together, builds missions, and turns the conquest of Indian lands into a farcical charade.

And I suppose that’s true of America, that all anyone cares about is money, and I suppose that money has turned the Indian’s suffering into a farcical charade.

Now, Maverick is a comedy, so let’s cut it some slack. For the Indian, the one with lines anyway, they got Graham Greene, a real live Indian, to lampoon the part he played in Dances With Wolves, and his performance is so fluid and reflexive that it reminded me of the Indians on F-Troop. So if the movie’s view of the Old West is okay with Graham Greene, I guess it’s okay with me too.

(How reflexive is Maverick? He actually refers to The Old West as “The Old West” as in: “News travels fast in The Old West,” as if people in The Old West actually referred to it as The Old West. So yes, the movie’s opinion of American History is Just Teasing.)

And while we’re at it, how about that Jodie Foster. She should do more comedy. She’s very funny in this, and she’s very funny in Inside Man too. She keeps pace great with Mel. In fact Mel, I would say, as far as big deal movie stars go, is quite generous and game to share the screen with his co-stars. And he’s hired a cast designed to remind astute audience members of great films from times gone by, and I give him (or whoever is responsible) credit for that.

But we were talking about that magic Ace of Spades. Maverick (the movie) kids about everything, everything but that. That Really Happened.

So, Maverick Believes in the Magic Ace of Spades, and even though he seems to be Just Teasing about God throughout the movie, there is, nonetheless, that miracle that allows him to win the day.

Now then, “winning the day” in Hollywood terms means that you walk off with a great deal of money. So now where are we?

I never saw The Passion of the Christ, but it seems to me that Mel pulled off his own version of Maverick here. He made a movie about Jesus, according to his lights, in Aramaic, which no one asked him to do, and he financed it with his own money. That is what folks in Hollywood would call a “fool’s gamble.” You only spend your own money on something if you’re an idiot. Right?

At the beginning of Maverick, Mel walks into a saloon and sits down at a poker table and proceeds to lose for an hour, before pulling out the stops and cleaning everyone’s clocks (whew! mixed metaphor!). I think he did something similar with Passion. He said that he would make it himself, spend his own money, and not care whether he made it back, that to make this movie was an exercise in devotion to his God. And everybody laughed and said “That Mel, he’s crazy,” forgetting that, in every movie Mel Gibson has ever made, THAT’S WHAT HE DOES. He does something ABSOLUTELY CRAZY and thus WINS.

When you think about it, it’s an incredible triumph. And, like Maverick, his act of devotion did what? Allowed him to ride off into the sunset with untold wealth.

Is this a great country or what?
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5 Responses to “Maverick”
  1. eronanke says:

    If you think Mel Gibson wins in every movie he’s in, you need to see Tim. No one wins in that movie, except maybe the Piper Laurie, who had previously played Carrie’s crazy mom.

  2. urbaniak says:

    A fascinating analysis of a movie I never would have seen. This is why your blog is ranked in theLJ Top 100.

    Snakes in a Bag!

  3. greyaenigma says:

    Passionate Review

    After a bunch of my friends refused to see Episode III, but nonetheless declared it sucked, they then accused me of liking everything — they dared me to write a review of a movie I didn’t like. I thought it was only fair to review a movie I hadn’t seen either:

    Jesus Christ, this movie sucked. From the beginning, the protagonist (I think his name was Jesse Cross) is being pursued by villains with a grudge. I think the hero must have been busily seducing women (as heroes do), and therefore slept with some jet pilot’s wife, the pilot swears revenge and… hell, we’ve seen all this before, so I don’t know why I’m telling you.

    Based on the director’s previous experience, Man Without a Face (which I haven’t seen either, but I heard it sucked), I knew this movie would suck holy goat balls before I walked in. Look at the script. It sucks. Everyone was talking gibberish. And then to confuse you, they put stuff on the bottom of the screen that clearly doesn’t match the words coming out of people’s mouths. And the cart chase? Totally unbelievable.

    But what really ticked me off was the ending. I heard that the villains think they’ve killed Jesse, but three days later he comes out of hiding. Is that enough of a cliche for you? But while a real hero would be practicing his archery, or taking that time to find the Spear of Destiny, this guy comes back and forgives those that have harmed him. My god, what is this guy, a saint or something? What kind of hippy crap is this? In these modern times, he should have punched out the pilot, grabbed the keys to that jet plane, kissed the girl, and just bombed everyone. No mercy. This is war.

    It was just a god-awful movie. Impossible to understand, and not at all part of a larger story in whose context the actions make more sense and the central character finally gets redeemed. There’s no empathic resonance, nothing archetypical in these characters at all — no one is going to care about their thoughts or feelings, mark my words. Greatest story ever told? Jesus Christ, get real.

    P.S. Guns don’t kill people — snakes kill people.