Lethal Western | Richard Donner’s charming sarsaparilla-flavoured caper Maverick at 30 

Thirty years on from its debut in cinemas, let’s take a look back at the light-hearted and breezy feature film adaptation of the old western TV series, Maverick. Filled to the brim with sly references, in-jokes, and cameos, it’s probably best remembered today for its meta-connections to the filmmakers’ other illustrious projects. But it deserves recognition on its own merits too, as a charming sarsaparilla-flavoured caper like no other. 

Director Richard Donner was reunited here with his leading man Mel Gibson in the wake of the first three entries in the highly successful Lethal Weapon series. Gibson’s co-star Danny Glover even makes an appearance at one point, complete with a recognisable music sting and an iconic catchphrase that will leave fans chuckling to themselves.

But that’s not all. Maverick has more in common with its buddy cop movie cousin than you might expect at first. In fact, the filmmakers bring some of their modern action sensibilities to bear on classic Western tropes, effectively updating the genre for audiences who had come to expect more bang for their buck. 

Nevertheless, the whole affair remains family-friendly at all times. There is no graphic violence to be found here and that largely works in the film’s favour. Although admittedly, the cartoonish gunslinging is just a tad too goofy at certain points. 


Naturally, Donner’s reliable craftsman-like staging services the story with an appropriate sense of scale. From scene to scene, we travel through wide open countryside following an episodic structure befitting of the project’s small screen origins. Our roving gambler makes his way from point A to point B in an effort to scrape together enough money to enter a big league poker tournament. He aids a group of travelling missionaries, cheats a Russian aristocrat out of a few thousand dollars, and teams up with a seductive con-artist played by Jodie Foster. All the while, he is pursued by bad-tempered thugs, led by Alfred Molina’s Angel. 

Screenwriter William Goldman first came to prominence in Hollywood with his script for the nostalgic counterculture masterpiece Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And he finally returned to the Western genre with Maverick, taking the opportunity to return to his old cinematic stomping grounds. Funnily enough, Paul Newman himself was offered a supporting role in the film as the titular character’s father. But the Butch Cassidy actor turned down the part after a pay dispute with the studio. In the end, Newman’s role was filled by James Garner, who returned to the franchise that had made him a star back in the late 1950s.

The Western was experiencing something of a revival at the time of the film’s release. It was preceded in cinemas by Tombstone, Far and Away, Dances with Wolves, and Unforgiven. And it was then closely followed by Wyatt Earp, The Quick and The Dead, and Legends of the Fall. Popular with audiences and critics alike, the genre had not seen such a flurry of activity since the bloody heyday of the Spaghetti Western and the Revisionist Western. After the earth-shattering failure of Heaven’s Gate, spurs, riding boots, and Stetson hats were finally back in fashion. 

If Maverick didn’t redefine the Western as some of its contemporaries did, then it at least helped to keep its spirit alive. It’s a free-spirited romp through a land of riverboats, rattlesnakes, and royal flushes. Hell, if you’re a prospector digging for gold, you could do a lot worse than this buried treasure. 

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