From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A group of young gunmen, led by Billy the Kid, become deputies to avenge the murder of the rancher who became their benefactor. But when Billy takes their authority too far, they become the hunted.”
To be blunt, there’s an upside and a downside in telling any stories from the somewhat celebrated life of William H. Bonney, the notorious gunslinger more commonly known as ‘Billy the Kid.’
The upside? Well, there isn’t a great deal that’s factually known about the life he lived, other than a healthy smattering of biographical facts as well as the surviving anecdotal history available from print media of the day. (And, yes, I say this as one who has read two biographies into his days along with a reasonable amount of treatises exploring the wider history of the American West.)
The downside? Well, there isn’t a great deal that’s factually known about the life he lived, other than a smattering of biographical facts as well as the surviving anecdotal history available from the print media of the day.
The truth is there’s fairly little of substance and specificity, and what exists does include a great deal of speculation, some of which could still suffer from a modicum of exaggeration. Knowing what little I do about Bonney, I suspect that the script – from screenwriter John Fusco – took some creative liberties here and there in order to craft something that would ultimately grow appealing to audiences. First and foremost – in order to be successful at the cineplex – you have to get audiences in their seats, so taking an already mildly larger-than-life personae and sketching a bit bigger and wider and broader certainly swung the saloon doors wide open with this portrait; and yet maybe a case could be made that a better way to go could’ve been spinning an entirely fictional portrait of this young band of gunslingers, a choice that arguably might’ve left room for even more theatrics.
The problem there is that the resulting Young Guns would’ve instead been a pure Western – one that might not have benefited from Bonney’s legacy – and we all know how audiences love a familiar face.
What is missing – to a small degree – is any authentic examination of why Billy did so much of what he did, all too often relying on his gun-playing antics as mean-spirited trickery. Fusco’s script suggests that the ill-fated John Tunstall was a central figure in the Kid’s life and times, if even for a short duration. It’s easy to accept that the kind and generous benefactor who kinda/sorta rescued Billy from a life on the run would earn the reverence shown in the set-up, but a more protracted set-up – one that truly put a face on their budding relationship – might’ve given the brief pairing greater narrative weight. Tunstall’s death at the hands of crooked lawmen also should’ve had more focus – it gets mentioned more so as reminder in a few scenes and never really discussed and/or debated – and the result could’ve been not only something special but also the kind of textual material stronger Westerns (i.e. 1952’s High Noon or even 1992’s Unforgiven come to mind) build whole plots around and upon. While good, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity for me.
But, arguably, Young Guns greatest asset is a truly young(ish) cast, one that definitely represents the true age to many of the West’s blazing saddles.
While not a household name, Casey Siemaszko shines in the guise of Charley Bowdre, and his portrait of a young boxer-turned-gunman probably has the best foundation in Fusco’s script; while his journey begins with the lad wishing to exchange blows opposite a deserving opponent, he eventually grows more comfortable spewing lead, even in his final shootout in the climax at Blazer’s Mill. Charlie Sheen plays Dick Brewer – the early leader of Billy’s ‘the Regulators’ gang – but he’s mostly wasted, essentially serving no real purpose other than to argue with the Kid about the best path forward all to often. Dermot Mulroney delivers a nice turn as the constantly tobacco-chewing racist Dirty Steve Stephens, a bit of a caricature of the worst cowboy traits the emerge perhaps more from screen history than reality. The always underrated Lou Diamond Phillips darn near steals every scene he’s in as the Native American Chavez y Chavez, the knife-wielding counterpart who tries to stay true to his people but can’t quite break from his new tribe. Kiefer Sutherland rounds out the posse, but I honestly never quite thought the actor looked all that comfortable in the face of Doc Scurlock. Some of this could be owed to the fact that Fusco’s script required him all too often to stare on in disbelief as Billy did what Billy does, and a few moments descended into mockery because of the overkill.
Still, the big star was and remains Estevez here. His Billy may lack some of the right stuff needed to convey the weight of what truly went through the young mind of an outlaw. Circumstances required more exchanges in lead, and I would’ve appreciated a bit more wordplay whenever the opportunity presented itself. Instead, director Christopher Cain kept the bullets flying and the horses galloping; some quieter and gentler moments could easily have been squeezed into this 107 minute run time had the focus shifted from lesser frolics and more fiction.
Young Guns (1988) was produced by Morgan Creek Entertainment. DVD distribution (for this release celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary) is being coordinated by the good people at Lionsgate. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights and sounds to this 4K Ultra HD pressing were phenomenal: there were a few scenes a bit undercooked, and I can only imagine that’s owed to some weaknesses of the source material. If you’re looking for special features? Though I don’t believe that there’s anything new in this release, I guess it’s still grand to have an audio commentary (featuring a few of the original cast) along with some making-of and a nice Billy the Kid biography to keep you at the campfire well past its embers fading.
As a fan of traditional oaters (aka “Westerns”), I can say that I’ve never been as enamored with Young Guns (1988) as have been most of its fans. There’s just enough story – nor any real introspection – to its characters, and I would’ve liked a bit more even at the expense of adding a few more minutes to an already respectable run time. What I do appreciate is that it’s probably one of the first flicks of my era that I felt truly represented the right age of these infamous gunslingers on the silver screen. I can forgive any screenwriter’s natural tendency to elevate his personal heroes to the status of legend; legends sell, after all, and there may not have been as many as elevated as were the short-lived days of Billy the Kid. He may not exactly rest in peace … but he, undoubtedly, raised more than a little Hell.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Lionsgate provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD of Young Guns (1988) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.