Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory
Revisiting the favourites of one’s youth can be a sobering experience, particularly if they’re reflective of one’s then age. Brat pack movies were always hit and miss, and the grouping itself was generally more a lazy catch-all for anything from the mid-80s to the early-90s that starred actors of a certain age who weren’t Tom Cruise (although, he might be squeezed in right at the start, a good few years prior to the phrase’s formulation). Young Guns, which I’d considered decent enough, didn’t really stand the test of time, so how does Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory fare, given I rated it more highly?
Gratifyingly, just about the same, returning screenwriter John Fusco having evident fun embroidering the legend of William H Bonney while director Geoff Murphy delivers far superior sub-Peckinpah to his predecessor Christopher Cain. Plus, that Jon Bon Jovi theme is persuasively evocative, understandably intruding on the proceedings at every opportunity, over and above Alan Silvestri’s score.
This really is the bookend to the Brat Pack as it was known, with dog-end attempts that followed (Mobsters) headlining faces who weren’t really part of what was, as noted, a loosely defined crowd anyway. Christian Slater, a crucial few years younger than that pack, gains nominal admittance here, and he’s a shot in the arm in a real signature role that utilises his cocky bravado to positive ends; Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh is obsessed with his own legend and attempting to project “his” leadership of the gang, to the complete disinterest of everyone else.
Slater’s clearly having a ball, embracing Dave’s less-than-refined elements (overtly racist – “I’ve killed sixty-five men, not countin’ Mexicans and Indians” – and taking delight in killing). He makes an effective counterweight to Emilio Estevez, naturally ruling the roost as Billy the Kid with his trademark giggling and manic energy (Estevez, it has to be said, is also really good as Brushy Bill Roberts in the bookend sequence, shrouded in old-age makeup and providing convincingly hoarse narration throughout).
Kiefer Sutherland returns as Doc Scurlock, once again the sensitive soul but this time relieved of the romantic baggage; because he has the moral compass, Doc’s inevitably a weaker presence, but he generally has a better footing on this occasion, and it’s worth recognising that Sutherland’s Andrew McCarthy-style softness is in stark contrast to other roles he was taking either side (The Lost Boys, Stand by Me, A Few Good Men). Lou Diamond Phillips also comes across much better here. For one thing, he has an unrepentant antagonist in Rudabaugh. For another, the “My people have a saying…” style faux-wisdom is kept to a minimum.
Other cast members – even those who weren’t yet names – reflect that Fusco’s screenplay is surprisingly deft and nuanced in its rehearsal of Billy lore, taking in his testimony in respect of the Lincoln County War, escape from custody and subsequent pursuit by former comrade Pat Garrett (William Peterson). Along the way, he picks up new members Hendry William French (Alan Ruck) and youngster Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty), incurs the wrath of John Chisum (James Coburn, making a dependably indelible impression in only a couple of scenes), visits bordello madam Jane Greathouse (Jenny Wright, offering an, ahem, great exit) and incurring his fellows’ wrath – Doc’s in particular – when he reveals the Mexican Blackbird – a trail leading to Mexico – is something he made up.
There’s a range of familiar faces pockmarking the picture. Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead, the same month of release’s The Exorcist III) is Governor Wallace. Jack Kehoe (The Untouchables, Midnight Run) is Garrett’s biographer Upson, much despised by posse member Poe (Viggo Mortensen) but proving useful in a tight spot (he speaks Navajo). Bradley Whitford is the reporter interviewing Brushy Bill Roberts. Tracey Walter is a Tracey Walter type (reuniting with Estevez following Repo Man). Robert Knepper is a deputy.
Many of them get memorable lines or scenes, be it the reaction of Sheriff Kimbel (Jerry Gardner) to being told to go get Billy: “I’d rather drink turpentine and piss on a brush fire”, or Poe’s chilly “Take your medicine, son” as O’Folliard dies before him (the picture’s leaning towards what would be Unforgiven-esque reflection is that, amid the stirring Bon Jovi and cackling Billy, he’s gleefully leading friends and impressionable youngsters to their deaths). Then there’s Jane’s promise, before her revealing passage from town: “I’ll show them what my civic virtue looks like”.
Many of the best lines go to Estevez, though, from the crudely impudent (“Good day, Mr Dung Pile”), to his reaction to being told by the judge he will be hanged until he is “Dead, dead, dead”: “You can go to hell, hell, hell!” He also shoots Sheriff Ollinger (Leon Rippey) with a rifle loaded with dimes (“Best dollar eighty I ever spent”).
Like any western worth its mythologising salt, Young Guns II plays fast and loose with history. But then, the best you can probably assert in such cases anyway is that official legend has likely overruled rumoured legend. The deaths of O’Folliard (but younger here) and off-screen demise of Rudabaugh are pretty much as stated. Both Chavez and Scurlock lived on until the 1920s, though.
It seems Sutherland refused to return unless his character was killed off (why this would be down to scheduling conflicts is anyone’s guess; it’s also said he didn’t want to continue with the franchise, in which case he clearly got his wish). Fusco had been historically accurate in having him survive, so he was understandably reluctant to make the change. Chavez is implied to be sloping off to die from a gaping stomach wound when we last see him, so why Fusco didn’t opt for historical accuracy there is anyone’s guess. As for Brushy Bill appearing out of the desert in 1950, the gist of that is also accurate.
Geoff Murphy’s Hollywood feature debut is nimble and engaging; he shows a keen eye for the iconic pose and sequence, and he’s aided by Dean Semler (returning to the series as DP) and editor Bruce Green. How energised would the picture seem without the Bon Jovi theme? Difficult to say, but that’s not slight; a movie’s score is inevitably a good portion of its power. Mostly. Notably, however, Estevez and Murphy would reunite on flaccid sci-fi Freejack the following year, and the director’s initial promise, by way of a subsequent Steven Seagal sequel, would turn rocky rather quickly.
Critics weren’t keen on Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, but then, the title itself is a red flag, rubbing their noses in an idea they’re predisposed to loathe. I’d argue the movie strikes precisely the desired balance between disrespect and diligence and amounts to one of the superior westerns post their golden era. To be ranked in the crowd-pleasing section with Tombstone, rather than the self-important stodge of Wyatt Earp.
As for the sequel? It’s suggested Fusco intimidated that not only Estevez, but also Sutherland, Phillips and Slater will be back (and Chris Pratt?!) I can quite see getting Doc and Chavez involved, as one only needs to expose Bill Roberts as an unreliable narrator (and only in the closing section at that, in order to protect their legacy or some such). Rudabaugh seems more of a stretch, but as noted, the Wild West is a highly malleable artefact when it comes to veracity.
I for one am eager to see it (Bill and Ted Face the Music turned out well, give or take, after a similar gap, after all). One might caution that Estevez the director hasn’t proved he has the chops for an action piece, but if he’s keen enough to exhume the property, I suspect he’ll make sure to do it justice. Provided that is, he can make anything, now he’s been tarred with the stigma of the unjabbed. Him and Will Smith and Ice Cube both. Gonna make you famous. One more time.