William H. Bonney:
“Dear Governor Axtell. I’ve heard that you will give 200 dollars for my head. Perhaps we should meet and talk. I am at the Juarez village at the border. Send 3 men, and instruct them not to shoot, as I am unarmed. In short, Sir; I surrender.
Your obedient servant William H. Bonney.
PS: I changed my mind. Kiss my ass.”
Thirty years have passed since the appearance over the open lands of New Mexico of the 1988 action western Young Guns, directed by Christopher Cain and written by John Fusco (whose filmography is a strange mix of western and martial arts films – Young Guns 1 and 2, Hidalgo, The Forbidden Kingdom, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny). Taking place during the Lincoln County War of 1877-78, it has been described as one of the more accurate tellings of the William H Bonney story by American Cultural Historian Dr Paul A Hutton.
Putting Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez on screen together alongside an exciting cast of up-and-coming actors, Young Guns attempts to bring fresh blood into the Western, injecting some youthfulness into a genre that has leant itself to the more aged actor. Estevez is larger than life as William H “Billy the Kid” Bonney and the film charts his rise from an unknown to the supposed gang leader after being taken in, amongst others, by Englishman John Tunstall (Terrence Stamp).
There is a sense of honour that runs through this gang of outcasts, of camaraderie and companionship for each other. A variety of abilities and skills are on show from the “Young Guns”; the pugilism of Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko), the quick draw of Bonney through to knife-throwing and utilising the Mexican Indian knowledge of Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) and the cool heads of Doc (Kiefer Sutherland) and Dick (Sheen). Lord knows what skills Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) brings to the bunch other than his ability to chew tobacco! All play their part throughout the film as the youngsters better themselves by having known and learned under John Tunstall. Most are grateful for this opportunity, which is why when the tyrannical and corrupt Irishman Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance) takes matters into his own hands to make more money by eliminating his competition, their only choice is for revenge. Eventually deputised, the Young Guns go about their business in lawful, honest fashion until Billy takes matters into his own hands in in his own style: Shoot first, ask questions later.
Young Guns builds fairly well as piece-by-piece the gang are isolated and then targeted by those that they are supposed to be bringing to justice; mainly through the actions of Billy. However, the finale is a bit anticlimactic and resolved far too soon. It feels rushed and as if less care was taken in it than the rest of the film and the earlier set pieces. The slow motion action sequences don’t hit the mark and feel a bit amateurish in a way that is incongruous to the previous actions scenes.
Although not a critical success (Young Guns currently holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 4.6/10), it was far better received by the audience who went on to make this a financial hit, almost quadrupling its $11 million budget, spawning a sequel in 1990. It still holds its own in this day and age, 30 years later, as the ensemble group of rag-tag youths, battling the older, wiser and more experienced cowboys as they stumble and dumbfound the odds. But this isn’t about the hard and fast rules of the Westerns of old. This is supposed to take it in a new direction, with new ideas; and it manages to do that in some small way.
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Dean Semler’s (Young Guns 2, Mad Max 2/3, Dances With Wolves, Appaloosa) cinematography and his skill at bringing to life the Old West helps Young Guns feel authentic to the time and place. With a prolific and excellent catalogue, there is a strong Western tradition running throughout and it certainly shows here. Cain, on the other hand, just about manages to bring the rambunctious cast together for long enough to create a somewhat compelling film. Young Guns is an entertaining and bona fide Western without ever fully capitalising on the promise of the young cast or the premise to make it something more.
And to top it all off, there is always the homage to the film in Warren G and Nate Dogg’s Regulate with the sample taken from the film being played off a VCR tape.