I enjoy Christopher Cain’s “Young Guns” for a number of reasons, one of which is its colorful take on the (infamous) Billy the Kid, the young outlaw who, legend has it, killed one man for each one of his years. (If memory serves, he was 21 when he died.) Another reason why I liked this version of Billy the Kid’s tale is the cinematography by Dean Semler, who washes the film in bright, stark colors and give the movie a polished, glossy look that I hadn’t seen before in a Western. (This technique has become commonplace now.)
Emilio Estevez, then a member of the Brat Pack (a group of young Hollywood actors on the rise back in the ’80s), plays William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. Billy is a gun-toting, happy-go-lucky runaway, quick-tempered and quick on the trigger. The movie takes a somewhat broad look at Billy’s early times in Lincoln County during what became known as the Lincoln County War. The “war” was actually a conflict between Englishman John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) and Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance), two businessmen who happened to be in the same business in a town that could only support one of them. Both sides hired gunmen, with Murphy owning the law outright, and Tunstall using his “Regulators,” mostly orphans and runaways, to fight back. Billy became one of Tunstall’s Regulators, and after Tunstall is killed in an ambush, it’s up to the Regulators to get revenge.
I’ve read numerous books on Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War, and I can safely say that “Young Guns” is a highly cinematic version of the infamous outlaw’s life and times. For one, Estevez and the rest of the actors are much too old for their roles, since Billy’s “famous years” was in actuality a very short time span of about a couple of years. His legend was mostly the product of Eastern writers who turned the young gunman into a folk hero and a Robin Hood-like figure, something to enthrall Easterners who had never seen the West but had only read about it. The real Billy was, mostly likely, just a kid who got lucky in gunfights. Or, as was most often the case with the real Wild West, Billy was a kid who managed to shoot his victims in the back before they could backshoot him.
What makes “Young Guns” good is its terrific cinematography and an inspired performance by Emilio Estevez as the trigger happy Billy. Once Tunstall is killed, Billy and the rest of the Regulators are deputized and allowed to go on a killing spree. Once the law turns on them, the Regulators become outlaws, and Billy becomes famous (or infamous, as it were). Although the movie plays it fast and loose regarding Billy’s “real” life, screenwriter John Fusco does manage to show the “backshooter” side of Billy. The first time Billy kills a man is in an outhouse, where he shoots a defenseless man who was in the process of relieving himself. Not exactly hero stuff, but it rings true and lends some credibility to the movie.
As a Western, “Young Guns” works on many levels. It’s fun, action-packed, and Estevez is quite good. The rest of the cast consists of well-known names, including Kiefer Sutherland (“24”) as Doc, a Regulator who fancies himself a poet, and ends up falling in love with Murphy’s Chinese mistress. Estevez kin Charlie Sheen (“Spin City”) also shows up.
The movie moves well, the pacing is good, and there is never any long lull between shootouts and billowing gunsmoke. It’s a fun ride from beginning to end, and the movie definitely gave Western fans something new way back in 1988.
Christopher Cain (director) / John Fusco (screenplay)
CAST: Emilio Estevez …. William H. Bonney
Kiefer Sutherland …. Doc Scurlock
Lou Diamond Phillips …. Chavez
Charlie Sheen …. Richard Brewer