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MEL-A-PALOOZA: MEL IN THE 90’S

MAVERICK (1994) *** ½

It’s not perfect, but Maverick is one of the best movies based on an old TV show ever made. Remember in the 90’s when it seemed like there was a new movie based on an old TV turning up in theaters on a daily basis? Well, this was one of the rare good ones.

The plot, such as it is, has Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) headed to a big poker tournament. Along the way, he hits up several of his friends for stake money, and nearly all of them wind up welching on their debts to him. Meanwhile, he gets into various misadventures with a marshal (James Garner, the original Maverick) and a pretty pickpocket and card shark (Jodie Foster).

Goddamn is Mel Gibson ever terrific in this movie. It’s definitely one of my favorite Mel performances. Part of the reason he’s so great is that after three Lethal Weapon movies, he and director Richard Donner had this sort of thing down to a science. They just traded out the cars and guns for horses and six shooters.

Gibson especially has a great rapport with Garner and their bickering is often hilarious. And I’m not the world’s biggest Jodie Foster fan, but I have to admit she’s great in this. It’s nice seeing her let her hair down for a change and not act so damn serious all the time.

The supporting cast is also great. We got Alfred Molina playing a solid baddie and James Coburn classing the joint up as the guy behind the big game. Not only that, but the climactic poker game is loaded with a who’s who of old cowboy stars (like Dub Taylor), exploitation movie icons (like William Smith), Blaxploitation legends (like William Marshall), and country singers (like Clint Black). And if you’re a fan of Donner’s work, you’ll enjoy seeing stars of previous Donner films like Corey Feldman and Margot Kidder turning up in bit parts. But by far the best (SPOILER) cameo is the Danny Glover scene. He even says, “I’m getting too old for this shit!” Awesome.

The film unfortunately takes one too many side trips on Maverick’s way to the big game. It also suffers from some lackadaisical pacing as the plot moseys along whenever it damn well pleases. At 127 minutes, the flick is probably about 20 minutes too long, but Gibson’s infectious likeability helps the film get over its rough patches.

Overall, Maverick is another essential Gibson/Donner team-up. It also happens to be one of the best westerns of the 90’s. It’s a lot more fun and rewatchable than Unforgiven, Wyatt Earp, or Tombstone, I know that much.

THE GREATEST MOVIES IN THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE: PAYBACK (1999) ****

Payback. How I love this movie. I know it’s not a perfect movie, but it’s one that works so well that I can easily forgive it. For me, it at least FEELS perfect; enough so for me to proclaim it to be one of The Greatest Movies in the History of the Human Race.

My brain knows that it is not a perfect adaptation of its source novel. The Hunter by Richard Stark (AKA: Donald E. Westlake), was the first Parker novel. Like all previous Parker adaptations, our hero is not called Parker (he’s called Porter in this one). And while the central premise is the same, the plot dovetails into its own thing by the end. My heart however says that’s okay. The film still has enough of the novel’s essence there for me.

And as a character, Porter does have some of the same attributes as the Parker of the novel. He only wants his cut of the money. He’s a bit more of a softie in the movie than in the novel, but not by a great margin. While I enjoy the coldhearted bluntness of the Parker of the novels, I have to admit what works on the page not always translates to the screen.

It helps immensely that Mel Gibson is playing the Parker/Porter character. Gibson has a knack for playing ruthless characters and still making them likeable. He pulls some rather coldblooded shit on people (like using one guy as a human shield), but the effortless way Mel does it never makes him seem like a total asshole or anything. I mean he will rip your nose ring out, but only if you did something terrible… like get his wife hooked on smack or something. Or if you do something stupid like come between him and his money, he will bust you up something fierce.

The promotional material for the movie was a bit dubious as it wanted us to “Get ready to root for the bad guy”; as if we were unaware that we supposed to throw our support behind Mel Gibson. Who the fuck did they think we were rooting for? I guess the studio was afraid to sell Mel as this ruthless kind of bastard. Stupid Hollywood.

Apparently, everyone got concerned that about the edginess of the movie, so the producers (including Gibson I suppose) ordered reshoots to soften the tone and change the ending. Only until a couple of years ago did the director’s cut surface on DVD. As curious as I am to see the version director Brian Helgeland intended, I have to say I love this movie the way it is.

For one, my favorite scene in the movie evidentially isn’t even in the director’s cut. And that would be the torture scene. This scene perfectly captures what I love about Payback. The villain (Kris Kristofferson, whose role isn’t even in the director’s cut) ties Porter to a chair and threatens to have his toes flattened with a hammer. Faced with certain pain and presumable death, Porter still goads his tormentors on by saying, “This little piggy went to market!” It’s this kind of ballsy badassery that you just don’t see every day.

But really, from the opening scene, you can tell it’s going to be a great movie. It’s here where we see the broke Porter steal and grift his way from having nothing in his pockets at the start of the day to wearing a brand new suit, buying a gun, and eating a nice dinner by the end of the day. It’s just great filmmaking and a terrific introduction to a badass character.

And honestly, I know I’ve been saying this all throughout Mel-A-Palooza, but Mel is great in this movie. This is definitely one of my favorite performances of his. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s true.

The supporting performers shine too. James Coburn (also in Maverick with Mel), William Devane, and Kristofferson are all superb as members of The Outfit who are backing Gregg Henry, the guy who weaseled Porter out of his money. And honestly, I don’t think Payback would be as great as it is without Gregg Henry. It’s a shame he never really got his due. As good as he was in Body Double and Slither, I have to say that this is the man’s best performance.

But it’s Lucy Liu who steals the movie. She plays Henry’s dominatrix girlfriend who perpetually smacks the shit out him. One of the best bits in the movie has Gibson finally confronting Henry, but instead of him roughing Henry up, Mel gets Lucy to do it for him. It just proves my theory that any film can be made better by adding a dominatrix.

I love this movie. I do have a feeling if I see the director’s cut at the thrift store or something, I may pick it up. Until then, I’ll just relish it the way it is.

Next Month’s Palooza will be up to you. Vote now (in the comments section) for who you’d like to see featured. Your choices: Gary Busey or Nicolas Cage. I’ll close the voting July 6th to give everyone enough time to let their voices be heard. (And no, I can’t tell you the movies I’ll be reviewing for each star… that would be cheating.)

Comments

( 10 comments — Comment )
darksteel6
Jun. 30th, 2012 03:21 am (UTC)
Busey and Cage, tough choice, I guess i'd have to choose Busey, cause even in his bad films he's entertaining, whereas in Cage's bad films(the Wicker Man remake and Knowing being his worst films) he just looked bored and listless most of the time.
thevideovacuum
Jun. 30th, 2012 09:52 pm (UTC)
So far, Busey is in the lead by a vote of 4 to 2. Still anybody's race though.
SaturdayNight Screening
Jun. 30th, 2012 03:33 am (UTC)
i haven't watched payback since theatre. i have both versions and i've been meaning to watch both.

fell asleep in theatre during maverick. never saw the whole thing.

Edited at 2012-06-30 03:35 am (UTC)
thevideovacuum
Jun. 30th, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
I'd love to hear your take on both Paybacks. Also, I think you need to give Maverick another chance. Despite the pokey pacing, it's a lot of fun.
comeuppancereviews.com
Jun. 30th, 2012 10:58 pm (UTC)
Great review. Love Payback! One of Mel's best. "I have to lighten the load..."
thevideovacuum
Jun. 30th, 2012 11:03 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Payback is a true treasure. Mel made so many great movies in the 90's. I really wanted to somehow squeeze Ransom ("GIVE ME BACK MY SON!") in there too, but I just have been too busy lately.
comeuppancereviews.com
Jul. 3rd, 2012 07:52 pm (UTC)
Mel totally sold the "Give Me Back My Son!" line. Only he could pull it off.
thevideovacuum
Jul. 7th, 2012 12:44 am (UTC)
Busey ended up winning by a margin of one vote, so I'll probably get around to reviewing some of his films in the next few weeks.
phaedravelveta
Jul. 16th, 2012 12:26 am (UTC)
I saw this in a bargin bin for $7.50 (on Blu-ray) over the weekend, so I picked it up .. it has both versions (we watched the directors cut) on Saturday night, and we really enjoyed it .. no Kris Kristofferson, but it does have a scene where he smacks his wife around ( is this in the theatrical??) and actually broke two of Kara-Unger's ribs!
thevideovacuum
Jul. 17th, 2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
No, that scene was trimmed. I've been re-reading (more like skimming) The Hunter and it kinda makes me want to see the DC.
( 10 comments — Comment )

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