One of the most iconic (maybe infamous is more apt a description), Billy the Kid is synonymous with the American west. His bloody, bullet-shattered life has been a frequent source for films, not too many of them actually any good. The odd exception? A 1988 western starring several up-and-coming stars and several established genre stars, it’s Young Guns.
A young gunfighter with a growing reputation, William H. Bonney (Emilio Estevez) is drifting along and on the run when he’s taken in by an English rancher, John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) in New Mexico. Tunstall has taken in a handful of young drifters who work his ranch and protect his cattle, but he finds himself facing the Santa Fe Ring, a group of cattle ranchers and businessmen trying to control the territory, including their leader, a cattleman named L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance). Things finally come to a head when Murphy-backed gunfighters callously gun down Tunstall. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, and Tunstall’s other men, the Regulators, are deputized to bring the men to justice. The Santa Fe Ring will not go quietly though, forcing Billy to take drastic action.
From The Left-Handed Gun to Chisum, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to The Outlaw, Billy the Kid has been the leading character in one western after another. The craziest thing? The 1980s western aimed at a younger audience…is one of the best! It’s probably right behind the 1970 John Wayne western Chisum. The history actually sticks pretty close to the facts of the Lincoln County War with only a few departures here and there. The look of the film feels spot-on (from the wardrobe to the New Mexico shooting locations), and the story doesn’t pull any punches, sticking to the dark, bloody source material.
Playing one of the American’s west most notable figures, Estevez is a scene-stealer as Billy the Kid. Past portrayals of Billy range from raging psychopath to petulant teenager, but Estevez finds a niche somewhere in between. His Billy is lightning quick with a gun, intelligent and always thinking…but he’s a little crazy, a little unhinged with an ever-growing ego. Estevez’s crazy, cackling laugh when Billy’s truly enjoying himself (usually after shooting someone) is downright creepy. But like so many western characters (anti-heroes or otherwise), Billy has a code he lives by, sticking with his fellow Regulators (his ‘Pals’) through — mostly — thick and thin. A solid, scene-stealing lead role.
The other Young Guns, the Regulators include Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko). We get little snippets of background as the story develops, but not much (Scurlock’s relationship with a young Chinese woman flops), so it would have been nice to learn a little more about the characters, all of them actual historical characters. With a touch of a younger, hipper Magnificent Seven though, the chemistry among Billy and the Regulators carries the movie as the Lincoln County War develops and grows bloodier and bloodier.
Hamming it up like only he can, Palance looks to be enjoying himself as the villainous Murphy. He’s not a developed, deep character. He’s just a sneering, intimidating villain so there’s that! Terry O’Quinn is excellent as Alex McSween, a lawyer who sides with the Regulators against the Santa Fe Ring. Western fans should also get a kick out of small parts for Brian Keith as a weathered bounty hunter and Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett.
Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Guns’ follows an episodic story, bouncing along from one real-life incident to another. It makes for a somewhat slow, sometimes disjointed feel, but a quick gunfight always helps to get the blood and adrenaline flowing! Billy usually instigates the gunplay, all building to an impressive final shootout as the Regulators show down with the Santa Fe Ring and some Gatling Gun-toting cavalry. It’s a fun western with a cool cast and some always interesting history. It also produced an equally worthwhile sequel two years later. A surprisingly positive western that is definitely worth a watch.
Young Guns (1988): ***/****