The 80’s seemed to be somewhat of a barren time for the western as audiences flocked to a rather different type of all-American hero in the form of the muscular human tanks firing endless bullets into rapists and drug dealers. Oh sure, there were several clasic examples out there from The Long Riders to Silverado with Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider Rider inbetween – not to mention bold revisions such as Katherine Bigelow’s Near Dark or goofy comedies like The Three Amigos! – but surely the most obnoxious of all of these is gunslinging brat packer Young Guns.
Taking a selection of Hollywood’s prettiest young leading men and flinging them into a genre chiefly populated by leather skinned, squinting men with calluses on their gun hand that’s hard as sun bleached rock, Young Guns was an attempt to sex up a genre by loading it’s chambers it with raw young star power and aiming them at the brains of a slightly different fan base.
Distinguished British gent John Tunstall is in the highly competitive cattle business based on the frontier of New Mexico and the old geezer has the distinctly noble habit of picking up wayward strays and molding them into upstanding young men by hiring them to be regulators for his ranch. His formerly motley crew includes the overly serious Richard Brewer, sensitive romantic “Doc” Scurlock, solitary half-mexican half-native American Chavez, grimy “Dirty” Steve Stephens and pugilist Charlie Bowdre and the five get on uneasily like a gang of hostile brothers. One day, Tunstall adds a sixth member, wild eyed gunslinger William Bonney to the mix and things kind of go to shit from there; you see Tunstall’s rival, devilish Irishman Lawrence Murphy, has been desperate to put him out of business and has paid off numerous sherriffs and politicians to endure he can do whatever the hell he wants – this inevitably means hiring a group of men to murder Tustall right in front of his boys.
Getting deputised in order to bring these men to justice, our six heroes call themselves The Regulators and head out to round up the guilty; however, there’s one, slight snag… Bonney is obviously a few gallons shy of a ten gallon hat and keeps insisting on blowing their prey away in cold blood instead of bringing them in in chains which not only worries the rest of The Regulators but eventually gets their deputy status reversed, making them the outlaws.
Now on the run from the law, the army and Murphy’s men and constantly squabbling about what to do next, the Regulators are all caught between their personal wants and desires as the metaphorical noose gets ever tighter.
As a movie, Young Guns ends up being remarkably similar to it’s six main characters in that it’s loud, full of energy and has no idea what it’s trying to achieve from one minute to the next creating a scrappy, uneven experience that fails to truly satisfy.
However, I have to admit that the main concept is horribly sound, with the central conceit of cramming a clutch of heart throbs together and coating them with dust like some sort of attempt to create a boy band aesthetic from the 1870’s making massive commercial sense seeing as The Lost Boys arguably tried the same trick with horror the year before… The problem seems to lie with it’s characterizations, as The Regulators are as clueless a bunch of bushwackers as I ever did see and they’re not particularly a likeable either group either despite being played by a veritable meteor of young hollywood charisma. Charlie Sheen’s “Dick” Brewer is devoid of personality and gets shot while sneaking up on a fella on a toilet, so we’ll write him off straight off the bat; Kiefer Sutherland’s Doc fares a little better with a half-baked plot concerning his baby faced romeo falling for Murphy’s chinese sex-slave but Lou Diamond Phillips is merely required to play enigmatic and absorb some “good natured” racism from his bros. On the other hand, both Dermot Mulroney and Casey Siemaszko, despite having arguably more to do actually make the least impact of the group with the distinct feeling that they’re rounding out the numbers. This leaves us with the movie’s lead which has Emilio Estevez portray the legendary Billy The Kid as a psychotic brat who thinks bulging his eyes and whooping a lot after plugging a son of a bitch is a sure fire way to convince an audience that he’s a bad-ass wild-card. He’s not particularly successful and yet still ends up being the best thing in the movie thanks to the script gifting him with some memorable moments like a one on one with with an uncredited Sam Neill as a texas pistol slinger or the moment where he outwits an outlaw by heading him off in a communal shithouse only to bellyflop into a large puddle of piss as he escapes through the window.
The supporting cast is solid, with Terence Stamp providing needed gravitas as Tunstall and in a nise touch, the legendary Jack Palance hands the torch over to the young ‘uns as he tracks up yet another western bad guy to stand along side his pantheon of scum bag cow pokes.
The film moves quickly, the gun fights are brutal (Billy blowing the brains out of a suspected traitor is a good one) and believe it or not, it’s one of the most accurate on-screen telling of the Billy The Kid story that’s ever existed, but it’s frenzied determination to ram the notion that these guys were loyal buddies to the end falls flat when Billy seems to be going out of his way to make things as bad as possible, therefore putting everyone else in mortal danger with literally every single move he makes. Instead of cementing him as a legendary outlaw, it just makes him seem like a massively annoying prick and nothing he does feels like it’s revenge for Tunstall in the slightest. It all comes to a head in the climax where plot threads we didn’t care about (Doc’s love runs to him in the middle of a shootout), or even was aware of (Bowdre squares up to a well known bounty hunter) collide with lethal levels of melodrama that leaves you feeling more confused rather than elated – for example, the fate of the boy’s lawyer played by Terry O’Quinn is almost hilarious as he’s gunned down by a fucking gatling gun while celebrating as the survivor ride off…
Still, the movie has a weird, confident charm that’s evident from the insanely tongue in cheek title sequence where they all turn to look at the camera in close up as their name pops up like it’s some sort of fucking gunslinging sitcom and it’s adolescent tone arguably fits with the story it’s trying to tell, but Young Guns’ focus is all over the place, dropping in odd segways like a peyote scene that’s easily as cringeworthy was the weed scene from The Breakfast Club of which Estevez is a double offender…
Patchy, muddled and populated by story quirks that have a far worse hit rate than Billy The Kid’s quick draw, Young Guns is still a jittery cult curiosity whose youthful exuberance outstrips it’s talents.