By People Staff
May 30, 1994 12:00 PM

James Garner, Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Coburn, Alfred Molina

Let’s all tip our Stetsons in salute to the return of good, clean fun. This large-scale western is as playful and consistently ingratiating as the 1957-62 ABC-TV series that inspired it (Garner, Jack Kelly and later Roger Moore starred as gun/cardslingers in the Old West).

Gibson plays Garner’s old role, Bret Maverick, while Garner is a retired sheriff shepherding Gibson and con-woman Foster toward a big poker game on a riverboat out of St. Louis.

When Garner and Gibson are both onscreen, not only is it filled with 400 or so pounds of wry, but it also looks like the finals of an infectious grin contest. The usually dour Foster seems coquettish, sly and pretty. Director Richard Donner, having honed his light-action skills with the Superman and Lethal Weapon series, exploits his stars’ attractiveness with close-ups and reaction shots. And screenwriter William Goldman evokes his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with a literate script full of amusing twists and marred only slightly by obscenities.

The secondary casting, unfortunately, is disappointing. While Co-burn is typically supercilious as a slick poker player, and Molina efficiently trots out his bullying Latino routine as Gibson’s nemesis, the film cries out for a villain with the stature of Garner and Gibson—Jack Nicholson, say, or Jeremy Irons. Cameos by Gibson’s Lethal Weapon buddy, Danny Glover, and country music stars Clint Black, Hal Ketchum, Waylon Jennings and Kathy Mattea whet the appetite for more color around the edges.

If the conclusion is a bit enigmatic, almost never has the prospect of a sequel been so welcome. We can close the competition for the most entertaining of the current spate of feature movies based on old TV shows. (PG)