Time has not been kind to Young Guns. Of course, no one was exactly claiming it as an instant classic even on its release. And there is general agreement that its sequel, which initially appeared to be little more than an extended publicity campaign for Jon Bon Jovi’s first solo album, is far superior. But at the time there was a crudely inevitable appeal to seeing Brat Pack stars unleashed on the western genre, and it seemed to have an at least passing interest in fidelity to the historical events it depicts.
Unfortunately, what is most striking now are the defects. You’d be forgiven for thinking the entire record of Billy the Kid it presents is hogwash, since the execution frequently invites derision (although this is often the result of invented characters and scenes, it must be said). Part of the problem is the very idea of inviting the epitome of 1980s youth to play in the near-1880s.
There is much dispute over who precisely the Brat Pack constitutes, since it was very much a loose journalistic invention anyway. St Elmo’s Fire (and, to a lesser extent, The Breakfast Club) was the main offender, but only one of the key “members” is present here; Emilio Estevez. Really it was just a lazy way of referencing young actors who weren’t necessarily stretching themselves with high art (although Estevez did appear in Repo Man, right near the start of his career; not high art, but the best film he’s made). You’d be hard-pressed to find a great Robert Downey Jr. movie from that decade, but he was busy, busy, busy (and not just in the sense of the uncontrollable snorting of anything he could lay his nose on).
Indeed, the key members have all but faltered on the big screen; Estevez turned to directing (to mixed results). Rob Lowe is mainly a TV face, Demi Moore briefly became the star of the moment in the early ’90s. The rest of the perceived core group; Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald have had mixed fortunes. Tom Cruise (who blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameos, no doubt as he’s firm chums with Estevez) and Sean Penn were contemporaries but found distinctive fame (but both showed up in pre-Pack ensemble Taps). As did Matthew Broderick and Michael J. Fox. James Spader could be relied on to show up as a creep, but was never part of the team. Charlie Sheen, whom we see here, somehow managed to evade the Brat trap his brother fell into; most likely it was the Oliver Stone mentoring that did it. But the other fledgling star to note is Kiefer Sutherland; he’d made an impression playing the older bully in Stand by Me and The Lost Boys, but in Young Guns he takes the Andrew McCarthy “sensitive” role (remember McCarthy, the one who always looked like he was about to wet himself?) It’s only Sutherland’s presence and – at a stretch – Lou Diamond Phillips’ (not because of La Bamba, but because he would again co-star with Sutherland the following year for Renegades) that identifies this with Estevez’ “posse”.
It didn’t need to; the thick-headed title does all the conjuring that’s needed. It has the banal superficiality of a packaged product designed to turn away all but the least wary and most in thrall to the fledgling stars. Christopher Cain has the basis of a decent movie here, but it can neither escape the paraphernalia of its pampered stars (even though there’s only one and a half), nor the calculations of a divisionary script that parcels moments to all its characters. It feels like, somewhere along the line, a decent idea became corrupted. But, reportedly, Cain was responsible for ditching James Horner’s score for the (mostly) steroidal synth and guitar atrocity in the finished movie.
You can see the thinking; unless you were Cruise or Fox you most likely weren’t set for stunning grosses with your young stars, but as long as you reined in the costs you could turn a tidy profit. The contemporary teen angst movie had a definite shelf life (even if you were John Hughes) but the embrace of other genres had just made the slightly younger skewing The Lost Boys a huge hit in the horror oeuvre (and an even bigger one on the growing home video market). Young Guns made the equivalent of $90m (and its sequel, which no one had huge expectations for, nearly equalled it with $85m, inflation-adjusted). These were by far at the high end of Brat Pack fare (nudging the pictures that started it all off), but they came right at the end of the cycle. 1990, the year of Young Guns II, was the last year you could claim to see any of its stars together. Estevez appeared with, and directed, his brother in Men at Work, and Sutherland said goodbye to the old stars while introducing the new in ensemble Flatliners (for his Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher).
Young Guns II probably succeeds better because by then they have a clear idea of what they are setting out to do. With this film it’s hard to escape the sense of a serious western being warped by the encumbrance of its stars and the marketing department with the original. Christopher Cain’s career seems generally distinguished by how undistinguished it is, and I won’t claim to be any sort of authority on it. He’s managed to keep working, but with illustrious fare such as Gone Fishin’ (Pesci! Glover!), The Next Karate Kid (the Hilary Swank one) and The Principal (James Belushi, of all people, sorts out an inner-city school) you wonder if that was so advisable. The germ of Young Guns may have come from his previous collaboration with Estevez; the star’s self-penned S.E. Hinton adaptation That Was Then… This Is Now. Unlike the dual Coppolas a few years earlier it was roundly dismissed.
Where Cain scores in Young Guns is with Dean Semler’s dusty, autumnal cinematography. Less positive are his directorial flourishes. Whether it was his idea or not, the opening credits line up of our young protagonists is ’80s movie making at its cheesy worst (with a hint of Fields of the Nephilim). As is their deputising. And the finale is a right botch up of sub-sub-Peckinpah slo-mo (I guess he watched Pat Garret and Billy the Kid a few times). Cain clearly thinks has included sufficient incoherent close-ups and medium shots to mask the illogicality of the gunslingers’ breakout, yet it only draws attention to the problems (and then he embarks on a ridiculous overkill as a Gatling gun despatches a supporting character). Yet, occasionally a sequence delivers exactly the impact intended; the murder of John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) occurs in long shot, a mass of riders appearing around his wagon from nowhere; the band’s peyote trip is appropriately fractured, and a sequence where the slow motion works to the benefit of the whole (chickens-in-the-movies aficionados will note Dermot Mulroney’s character obsessing over a particularly large one he has seen). And the Regulators’ first encounter with a formidable foe, Buckshot Roberts (played with “This is how it’s done, boys” relish by Brian Keith), has just the right combination of tension, humour and horror.
Writer John Fusco sets his stall around the events of the Lincoln County War, introducing us to Billy when the kindly Tunstall takes him in. It’s fair enough to play fast-and-loose with historical accuracy if the benefits are dramatic ones, in my opinion. But the changes here often feel clumsy, leading to clichéd exchanges and predictable plot developments. Fusco tacitly acknowledges that the whole process of mythologising, of which Young Guns is a part, when Billy exclaims that he is not, in fact, left-handed. And then again when a newspaper article is adorned not with a drawing of him, but Dick.
Tunstall was barely older than his Regulators in reality (and younger than several of them) but casting the ever-dignified Stamp as a mentor figure is wise to the extent that it gives the audience a clear understanding of why they are fuelled for vengeance; his benevolence is vast. You do wonder if Jack Palance’s antagonistic Murphy wasn’t onto something when he cackles accusingly about Tunstall’s interest in young men. Stamp does nothing to play down this affectation, and lines like “Besides, if we gave in and left, who would look after my boys?” are fairly leading.
Reducing the number of Regulators by a good third from the historical account makes sense if you want to identify with the characters, and creating different tensions and alpha male activities is obviously a prerequisite for internal conflict. Charlie Sheen’s Dick Brewer was in reality the unquestioned leader, but making him a bit of a prig enables the instinctive Billy to undermine him and encourages a wary audience to get behind that behaviour. Sutherland’s Doc is there to give the movie a sensitive soul, but his character lacks sufficient backbone to balance Estevez on screen. In addition, Doc’s romance with Yen Sun (Alice Carter) is utterly insipid. He gets the occasional good line, though, and he and Estevez have strong chemistry. There’s a nice moment where Cain plays the comedy of counterpoints; “Doc likes me” claims Billy, only to cut to Doc in another location exclaiming, “I can’t stand him”.
Casey Siemaszko’s Charley Bowdre is perhaps the least distinguished of the gang, although he and Dermot Mulroney are the only two who have a remotely convincing unpampered look. Mulroney as Dirty Steve Stephens, particularly given his subsequent leading man status, is the reveal revelation. He’s grunged-up to the max, complete with hair lip and an ignorant, brutish, demeanour that tells you the actor is playing his role like he’s in a far more worthy, prestigious, picture. His is the stand-out turn, basically.
Not great is Lou Diamond Phillips. With the recent hit La Bamba behind him, his character Chavez is changed from Mexican to Navajo/Mexican. He is duly given an emotive speech about how his family was massacred and he is the last of his people. It’s a horribly written tirade, and Phillips embarrasses himself enormously delivering it. He’s an actor who can simmer effectively, but that’s about the extent of his range.
Fortunately, the glue holding all this together is Estevez. His Billy the Kid is a puckish delight. Quickly announced as an unapologetic psychopath, Estevez puts his infectious laugh to effective use as Billy reacts to each new challenge not with fear but relish. His latrine murder of Henry Hill is the defining moment; he shoots him in the chest but instead of shock he lets out that staccato giggle, as if discovering for the first time the enormous pleasure he derives from murder. Later, he deflates pompous braggart Texas Joe Grant (Thomas Callaway) with the confidence of a man (boy) who knows he can’t be outdrawn and doesn’t care who he kills. When the cavalry arrives at the climax, his response is “I like these odds!” and that level of charisma is just what the viewer needs to stay with him. Yet he also he potently infuses his Kid with a barely suppressed mania, such that his final standoff with Brady is too classically posed for what has gone before. Once can’t help wish Estevez had gone the full Mulroney and scuzzed himself up for his Dirty Little Billy.
As for the object of their vengeance, experienced western face Jack Palance oozes Machiavellian menace as Murphy. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, except maybe the hilarious OIRISH accent he adopts. I suspect he proudly proclaimed that he achieved it without a voice coach… There’s also a good supporting role for Terry “John Locke” O’Quinn; he had received raves for The Stepfather the year before, but he plays one of the good guys this time (it would be another ten years before he got the game-changing Millennium gig on TV). There’s also a brief appearance by Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett; clearly the filmmakers thought it was a clever nod to his pater’s status as the western icon, but Wayne Jr. is a blank canvas (William Peterson is a much better fit for the sequel).
Young Guns may be most important not for its quality (variable) but for providing a lifeline for the western and so countering those who rung its death knell. Heaven’s Gate pretty much killed the genre commercially at the start of the decade, and only Eastwood’s unremarkable Pale Rider did any business until Estevez and co arrived. Only four years later, Unforgiven would truly salvage it. Young Guns embraced aspects of the genre, but with those glamorous bucks in tow it isn’t surprising that it lacked the insight to bring anything truly revisionist to the table. It remains a patchily enjoyable confection, and fortunately many of the lessons of what didn’t work would be learned for the sequel.