Back in 1988, a clutch of Hollywood’s most fanciable males were rounded up into a group and appeared in Young Guns, a scrappy, but surprisingly accurate account of the legend of Billy The Kid and his involvement in the Lincoln County War which left countless men riddled with slugs as the grudge match raged throughout the West.
The result was an attempt to recapture the Western through the fidgety, overblown prism of the 80’s and while it was entertaining enough, the finished product was as uneven as the dusty territories themselves but the central concept just about held things together thanks to the prime cuts of beef that filled out the upper ranks of the cast list. However, The Kid’s story wasn’t finished yet and – much to the relief of Emilio Estevez’s agent no doubt – thus Young Guns II rode into town firing its revolvers in the air in time to “Blaze Of Glory” by Jon Bon Jovi. Can the huge amounts of boundless energy the first movie had once again manage to trump a stunning lack of focus in the effort to make good on Billy’s threat and “make everyone famous”?
After the events of the Lincoln County War – which saw a group of six, vengeful men initially deputized as The Regulators in order to bring the men to justice who shot their father figure but ultimately saw them slip over to being outlaws when the excitable Billy The Kid figured a dirt nap was more justice than a jail cell and took it upon himself to start a killing spree – the survivors have all gone their separate ways.
Billy has joined a gang made up of the notoriety-obsessed Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh and Billy’s friend Pat Garrett and is essentially up to his old wise ass tricks, unaware that the governor of New Mexico has issued a warrant for the remaining Regulators. After Doc Scurlock is dragged away from his teaching job to join fellow ex-Regulator Chavez y Chavez in waiting for the gallows, Billy unknowingly meets with the governor to cut a deal to turn evidence in order for a full pardon but needless to say it’s all a ruse just to bring him in. Of course, Billy being Billy, he not only escapes because he has the luck of the fucking devil, but he also manages to rescue his old mates to boot.
With his new gang merged into his old gang to create a third gang that’s arguably no better or worse than either of them, everyone takes a breather to work out what they should do next and the first option to be thrown out is for Scurlock to ride back to his family thanks to them being notoriously wanted men. While Garrett opts out in order to settle down and start a restaurant, the rest of them opt to search for a trail that leads across the border known as the Mexican Blackbird on the word of the insanely unreliable Billy. However, as the gang keeps insisting on putting noses out of joint, measures are taken to take them out for good and the man chosen to hunt them down is…. Pat Garrett.
While I often found the first movie as irritating as an enthusiastic sand-enema, it still had a certain charm that stubbornly dragged things along until it crossed the finish line all dusty and fucked up – Young Guns II manages to retain it’s highly obnoxious tone while skipping the charm entirely.
The main problem is Emilio Estevez’s William H. Bonney, who continues to be a stunningly punchable lead thanks to both the script and the performance and who the film is convinced we’ve fallen under his roguish spell despite the fact he’s blatantly a shit-kicking asshole. Still bleating on about friendship and doing right by your brothers in the saddle while never once exhibiting those particular traits for a single solitary second, I’m not quite sure exactly why the movie is so utterly convinced we’ll all get behind Estevez’s hypocritical brat a second time, especially since he lies more than breathing.
While I understand that the real Billy The Kid was hardly what you’d call a nice guy, the endless stream of self obsessed bullshit Estevez’s Bonney spews just makes him fundamentally unlikeable on virtually every level – at least the first film had the rest of a generally likeable cast to offset this but the sequel sketches all of the other characters so poorly, Estevez hangs above them all like a deity formed entirely of douche. Keifer Sutherland has nothing to do except pine for his family (whom we never even see), Lou Diamond Phillips continues to be the lazily enigmatic Native American and newcomer Christian Slater’s job seemingly is to try and be as annoying as Estevez… only William Petersen’s Pat Garrett has any meat or subtlety to his role as he’s flanked by a grim, pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen.
The tone of the film is still as breakneck as the first but somehoe with even less focus – if you could imagine such a thing – and it often feels that it’s deliberately and arrogantly thumbing its nose at the slower, more deliberate works of Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone by barreling along like its loud mouthed leads. If I’m being honest, neither of those two guys had “Blaze Of Glory” to slap on its end credits but if you really want to watch a really good revisionist Western with a distinct 80’s/90’s flavour then you’ll be far better off digging up Tombstone instead.
To give Young Guns II its due, it still manages to blend real life occurrences within its story, such as the movie being bookended by Estevez in dodgy old age makeup as “Brushy Bill” Roberts, a man who did actually claim to be Billy The Kid in 1950, but it’s not enough to salvage a movie that unironically expects us to champion its toxic lead without giving us any reason to apart from the fact that he’s really good at shooting people.
Director Geoff Murphy, would go on to give us the renowned “classics” Freejack and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory; a movie that valiantly tried to have us believe that Steven Seagal could outrun a crashing train; but at least those movies turned their rampant ugliness into camp, cult gems of shite.
For all of Billy The Kid’s toxic bullshit and sharp shooting, the only place this movie manages to place its deciding bullet is squarely into it’s own foot.