Starring: Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Christian Slater
Director: Christopher Cain (I), Geoff Murphy (II)
Released: 1988 (I), 1990 (II)
Mood: If you can’t decide between watching The Mighty Ducks and a Western but also have a strong and powerful urge to rock out to ’80s guitar solos.
Some movies are a part of the fabric of your life.
That sounds SO f*cking dramatic. And it’s true. If you love movies, they often coincide with important moments and memories in your life, even impacting who you are.
My mom showed me Roadhouse at around 10 or 11 years old, which launched my painfully one-sided lifelong love affair with Sam Elliott. And Young Guns was one of two movies (the other being Tombstone) that made me the Western-loving weirdo I am today.
I don’t remember the first time I saw Young Guns or Young Guns II, but I do remember having a massive crush on Lou Diamond Phillips… and plotting to one day ride out naked on a horse, telling everyone to “kiss my lily white ass”.
I should get on that, this white ass is getting old and bruised from so many falls from roller skates and horses.
ANYWAY. I’m reviewing the two movies together because like corn dogs and beer… or me and long-winded bodies of text… you can’t have one without the other.
Young Guns begins as Henry McCarty aka William H. Bonney aka Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) is taken in by rancher John Tunstall (Terence Stamp). He meets fellow outcasts-turned-ranch-hands Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Jose Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), and Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen).
After Tunstall is murdered, the boys ride for revenge as the newly formed Lincoln County Regulators. They’re deputized to bring in the Murphy men who killed Tunstall, but of course, Billy can’t be content with handing them over to the courts.
Billy becomes increasingly erratic and egomaniacal, which results in lots of great shootouts. Emilio was the perfect f*cking choice for this role. He has that bouncy energy, childlike charm, and the high-pitched giggle – his Billy is Peter Pan syndrome personified.
At first you’re rooting for Billy, but it starts to get painful watching his behaviour toward his friends. He makes selfish decisions, throws tantrums, and constantly employs emotional blackmail.
It’s a really f*cking dark characterization, if you think about it. As a teenager I thought Emilio’s Billy was hilarious, but I was also distracted by Lou Diamond Phillips’ awesomeness, so I didn’t pick up the narcissistic, sociopathic traits.
It’s hard to know what Billy the Kid was really like; most accounts agree that he looked boyish and was always smiling, but that’s about it. Newspaper stories from that time period are notoriously unreliable. And Billy’s primary biographer, Pat Garrett (The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid), is said to have made him seem extra mean to ensure he came out the hero for the hunting and killing of the Kid.
- Fun fact #1: Young Guns actually brought out my inner Western nerd – after watching it for the 10th or 100th time as a teenager, I hunted down The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid from a library on Vancouver Island and had it shipped to my local library (it’s called an inter-library loan, libraries are the shit) so I could read it
Lou Diamond Phillips is f*cking phenomenal as Chavez, the “Mexican Indian”. Chavez is quietly fierce, the bravest of the bunch, with shockingly deep vulnerability. His monologue about his bloody history with the Murphy gang is emotionally raw, and the most sincere part of the entire movie.
Phillips is Filipino American, but says he’s part Cherokee, and has maintained close ties to Native Americans including an official adoption by an Oglala Lakota Sioux family and into the Northern Cheyenne nation. So I’m 99% sure that makes it okay for him to play a Native American.
As a teen I didn’t think twice about Dick Brewer (Sheen), but after spending years as a roller derby captain and coach, I’ve got mad respect for poor Dick. The dude was saddled with the unforgiving task of cat-herding loose cannon Billy the Kid and his wild friends in the Lincoln County War. He deserves a f*cking medal.
Apparently Sheen was a terrible rider, and fell off his horse multiple times on set.
Although Young Guns does take some big liberties with history and people (and WTF is up with that gratuitous peyote trip?), it’s actually closer to fact than quite a few other modern Westerns.
- Fun fact #2: Tom Cruise makes a cameo in the scene where Charlie bursts out of the house shooting. Cruise happened to be on set that day, so they threw him into the movie. His character is immediately shot.
It’s a great movie full of attractive young actors, which seems to be a popular way to try to make Westerns happen (hello, American Outlaws).
They didn’t plan on a sequel, so Young Guns wrapped things up by telling you where all the remaining characters ended up. Young Guns II begins shortly afterward – with Pat Garrett’s famous chase, capture, and killing of Billy.
Where Young Guns tried to stay true to fact, its sequel tossed that to the wind.
Young Guns II is loosely based on the ‘testimony’ of Brushy Bill Roberts, a man who was born just one year before the Kid died, yet who claimed to be Billy the Kid.
Most of the historical figures are given fictional stories in the sequel, including Pat Garrett (William Peterson), Doc, Chavez, and Jim French (called Jim Hendry in the movie). Some were killed off in the first movie when they actually were with Billy for events in Young Guns II and even survived after Billy’s death, and others like Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty) are added in the sequel but actually rode with Billy from the start.
The original screenplay apparently did accurately have Doc survive, but Kiefer Sutherland insisted on a rewrite so his character would die before the end. The writer fought against it, but ultimately lost and so we got one of many big fibs in Young Guns II.
This movie has a different vibe in many ways. It feels faster, with a lot more action, more chases, and much longer shootouts. That makes sense, given that the former Regulators spend the entire movie on the run. It’s more excitement, but less depth.
They also bolstered the star-studded cast with Christian Slater, Viggo Mortenson (although he wasn’t big yet), and a brief appearance by James Coburn. And Bon Jovi did the soundtrack. My boyfriend finds the blaring rock guitar interludes distracting, which I didn’t notice until he said it and then it became a glass-shattering revelation à la HIMYM.
In Young Guns II, Billy has become even more maniacal and volatile. He’s meaner, his guilt trips are even bigger, and he’s using his friends to keep himself alive.
I really enjoyed Peterson as Pat Garrett, which is another thing that’s new about watching this movie as an adult. Whereas before I hated him simply for hunting the ‘good guys’, I now appreciate what he was trying to do. Peterson provides a good combination of inexperience and determination – the real Garrett was only 30 when he was first elected sheriff and hunted Billy.
Where Young Guns had Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) constantly shit-talking Chavez with racial slurs, Young Guns II has Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater). This guy is such a major f*cking dickbag. Slater is great at playing a troubled, kind of psychopathic asshole.
Can we acknowledge that Chavez is the only one who keeps doing literally everything right in both movies?!
The end of Young Guns II is painful, because it follows the idea that Billy wasn’t killed (according to Brushy Bill Roberts). So basically everyone who he had contact with gets gunned down because of him, and he wins.
I loved Young Guns II as a teen, and it’s still a good movie that I recommend, especially if you drink beers and marathon the two together (which I obviously did). I’ll still be watching both in 2050… although hopefully a VR version where I can ride behind Chavez on his horse, with my arms wrapped extra tight around him.
But I don’t love the sequel the same way I used to. I’m a jaded grownup who doesn’t like watching selfish, egotistical assholes get their way, whether it’s escaping justice or being elected President of the United States.