Even on its 25th, “Young Guns” is a worthy saddle-bagger. The passage of time has more completely sealed its place somewhere between the masterpieces (“Unforgiven”) and the cow pies (“American Outlaws”), but the film which critic Janet Maslin called “an extended photo opportunity” is still well-acted, visually well-worn and faithful to the meat and potatoes of the Western canon. The corrupt Sheriff, the quick-gun, vigilante justice, death in or in the vicinity of an outhouse ~ it’s all here behind a gumptious soundtrack of violins and electric guitar. The movie is probably best known for its attempt to hip-up the genre by herding together some of the decade’s young and rising stars ~ Charlie Sheen after back-to-back turns for Oliver Stone in “Platoon” and “Wallstreet,” Kiefer Sutherland post-nasty in “Stand By Me” and “The Lost Boys” and Lou Diamond Phillips still warm after his breakthrough in 1987’s “La Bamba.” And at the center of it all, Emilio Estevez and his cackle. So, “Young Guns”…the Brat Pack in spurs? Arguable. If your definition of the Pack is as exacting as your talent for quoting “The Breakfast Club,” you’d know the nickname originally applied to Estevez, Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson; affix other members of “St. Elmo’s Fire” in desperation only. Nevertheless, as the 80s wore on, the Pack and its affiliates were clearly aging. If “Young Guns” is known as Hollywood’s attempt to update its oldest genre, it also marks the last time these actors would play anything close to 19. Oh, “Young Guns II.” Second last time.
The story unfolds against the 1878 Lincoln County War, a period of hostile rivalry between competing merchants/cattlemen in New Mexico Territory. Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance of “Shane”) is the mustachioed villain, an Irish American businessman and Union Army vet who, with partner James Dolan, enjoys a virtual monopoly on dry goods sales and government beef contracts. As part of the Santa Fe Ring, a circle of corruptibles, Murphy is near untouchable. Among those in his pocket or close to it are Sheriff Brady of Lincoln, territorial politicians and innumerable churlish guns-for-hire. John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) is the opposition, a fair-minded Englishman who champions healthy competition over price fixing and intimidation. What Tunstall is not though is naive. To mind his property and his life, he employs a skilled band of “runaways, derelicts, vagrant types” ~ Doc Scurlock (Sutherland), Chavez y Chavez (Phillips), the pugilist Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko), Dirty Steve Stephens (Mulroney) and the cheerless Dick Brewer (Sheen) as their defacto leader. “Regulators! Let’s mount up!” Way cooler than “Yo Joe!” William Bonney (Estevez) is taken into the fold early in the film while on the run from some supposed illegal act. Under Tunstall’s roof he’s treated as more than a simple hood and a bond develops. It takes on added significance after a posse organized by Brady gun Tunstall down in cold blood. It hits Bonney hard. In the words of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton, “Son of a bitch must pay.” In this case bitches plural. The Lincoln County War begins.
When the Regulators are deputized to legally serve warrants to Tunstall’s killers, the Billy the Kid of legend is unleashed, a playful but volatile cocktail who’ll stop at nothing to avenge his employer. The characterization warbles slightly across Kid films. Kris Kristofferson (“Pat Garrett and Billy and Kid”) is the most believable, Paul Newman (“The Left Handed Gun”) the least stable and Estevez somewhere betwixt them. Hats off to Estevez though and the rest of the cast for energizing the better part of this $11 million production. It makes up for the underused Palance/Murphy and the lulls designed to give certain Regulators their moments in the sun, Chavez’ peyote tea sequence and Scurlock’s delicate pursuit of an indentured Chinese girl, for example. No bromance without romance I guess.
It wasn’t the first attempt either. “Young Guns” joins “The Left Handed Gun,” “The Kid from Texas” and a satchel load of plain ol’ “Billy the Kid”s as a dramatized telling of the Kid legend, accurate enough against recorded history for a viewer to claim they learned something of William Bonney aka William Henry McCarty, Jr. aka Henry Antrim (his biological father was unknown) and the events that shaped his rise to renegade. Be wary though before you start slinging about Kid facts based on this 1988 oater. Reportedly Bonney first worked with Scurlock and Bowdre in a cheese factory, not the Tunstall ranch. As for Tunstall himself, can’t see him having actor Stamp’s middle-aged greys. He died at 24 and Murphy passed of cancer, not a perfectly centered bullet to the forehead from Billy’s six shooter. Minute details? Depends on your allegiance to history over entertainment. The movie’s climax at the McSween (Tunstall’s partner) homestead however is pure Hollywood, for our want of closure. Yes, Billy and his pals were trapped inside, surrounded by various gangs, Murphy men and cavalry. Yes the house was set ablaze. And yes the Kid did survive, but Billy no more popped out of a storage trunk to blast his way to freedom than he zipped through time in Bill and Ted’s excellent phone booth, doggone it! Shucks. Anyway. All in all, this one’s forest stands even with a tree or two pruned ~ the price of dramatization.