I grew up watching the old Maverick TV show (in syndication on Sunday afternoons), in which James Garner played the title character, Maverick. Bret Maverick is a professional gambler in the Old West, famous for his luck, looks, charm, and a few superstitions.
The movie casts Mel Gibson in the role of Maverick. James Garner has a major supporting role as Maverick's father, who Garner insists he plays as the exact same character as the original television Maverick. In Garner's eyes, he is the same character, and Gibson was simply his son. I'm not sure that was the intention of the film, but it doesn't do any harm, either. Viewers of the television series will remember that the Maverick brothers were constantly quoting (or misquoting) their “old Pappy,” Beau Maverick, and it's more likely that Garner is intended to be that character.
Mel Gibson, along with writer William Goldman and director/producer Richard Donner, really did their homework for this movie. Gibson's character has the same mannerisms, the same character traits (he still doesn't like to fight), the same witty repartee, the same appeal to the ladies, and the same uncanny ability to trip up the bad guys at their own game as Garner's original Bret Maverick. He even looks very much like a younger James Garner; there is no problem believing they are father and son. As Jodie Foster's character murmurs at near the end of the film, “such interesting similarities.”
Fans of the TV show will notice that the Maverick family has decreased significantly in size. There's no brother Bart (originally played by Jack Kelly), who in the series was the focus of almost half the episodes. There's also no English cousin Beau or younger brother Brent...though there are a few amusing moments when various characters call Bret by one of those names, perhaps in subtle tribute to the absent Mavericks.
The movie centers around the All Rivers Tournament, a major gambling event with a $25,000 entry fee and a half-million dollars in prize money. Maverick is on his way to the tournament, looking up friends who owe him money as he goes, because he is still a few thousand dollars short of the entry fee. At a poker game he meets gambler/con artist Annabelle Branson (Jodie Foster), whose greed and skill prove to be more than a match for Maverick's. Sparks and irritation both fly between these two slightly-less-than-noble characters through the whole film, providing one of the movie's most humorous sources of entertainment. On the journey to the tournament, Maverick and Annabelle begin to travel with lawman Zane Cooper, or Coop, played by James Garner, though “Coop” is obviously an alias...perhaps for Bret Maverick, Sr.?
The climactic scene at the poker tournament involves attempted murder (someone didn't want Maverick to make it to the game), sex (all that sexual tension finally gets its due), bribery (Maverick had to get the rest of the money somehow), magic (one of Maverick's superstitions pays off), betrayal (not everyone is who he or she seems to be), and a cast of old western and country music stars making cameos, including Denver Pyle, Clint Black, Dan Hedaya, Waylon Jennings, Kathy Mattea, Vince Gill, Janis Gill, Carlene Carter, Cal Bartlett, and William Smith (a 2-time World Arm Wrestling Champion).
James Coburn as the captain of the river boat where the tournament takes place, and a young Alfred Molina as a hired gun add another level of enjoyment to the story. The supporting cast is one of the things that makes this movie a gem.
Sure, it's not exactly the old TV show. At best, it's a “based-on the series” kind of thing, but I think that if you don't sweat the details (such as the missing brothers), the spirit of the film does honor its source. The movie is very entertaining, thanks to an excellent supporting cast, sharp directing, skillful photography, inspiring music, and the enduring appeal of the character of Bret Maverick.