Young Guns (1988)

2011 #37
Christopher Cain | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Young GunsWay back in March, the ever-excellent Colin at Ride the High Country covered a series of films about Billy the Kid, including this late-’80s effort. To quote from the comments section: “I would have been in that target demographic too when I first saw it… around 20 years old or so… I wonder how it would play now to an audience of a similar age.” Well, as someone who watched it when closer to 20 than 30, I shall step up to the task.

Considering this is ‘the Brat Pack Western’, one might well expect a modernised, sanitised West; something like Wild Wild West or Jonah Hex; something rated PG-13. Instead the film seems to have begun life as a serious attempt at a Billy the Kid biography, right down to bloody violence that earns it an R in the US and even an 18 over here. This intention seems to survive — bar a music-video-styled opening, a couple of lines of dialogue, and the wailing ’80s guitar score — but how successful it was is another matter.

I don’t know about historical accuracy in this case, not knowing much more about Billy the Kid than I’ve gleaned from… well, this film, and Colin’s series. Playing loose with facts can work in a film’s favour — as many a filmmaker has noted in the past, they’re making entertainment not documentary — but it can be galling to one who knows the truth. In the way it presents events, this one feels accurate — things like characters appearing only to die immediately; the kind of thing that doesn’t sit well narratively but might be the truth. If it isn’t accurate, this is all the more dangerous: there’s a difference between changing facts so something works as a film narrative and presenting the wrong thing as the truth. Guns of the youngThough if someone was planning to use Young Guns to research the real-life facts of these events, more fool them in the first place. Wikipedia says (without citation) that “historian Dr. Paul Hutton has called Young Guns the most historically accurate of all prior Billy the Kid films”. We’ll leave it at that for now.

As a film in itself, then, the narrative is a bit scrappy. Our heroes wander around killing some people, racing about the country sometimes for no discernible reason and with chunks apparently missing. For instance, they head to Mexico just for the challenge of it — we’re told it’s a hard road, laden with bounty hunters out to get them — but the film cuts from their decision to make this journey to their arrival with a rapturous welcome. Eh? I have no idea if this stuff was shot and cut for time, or if someone needed to have a long hard look at the screenplay. Or even a quick glance.

The finale is also implausible. One assumes the characters who survive must have survived in reality and the others must’ve died, but the way it’s played here it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. How did they defeat those overwhelming odds? How did they pull off that escape? It might pass muster with The Hero Is Invulnerable movie logic, but not as a claim to depicting real-life events. Billy the GrinAnd that’s without mentioning the overuse of dated slow-motion that descends upon its eventual climax.

As for the Brat Pack themselves, Emilio Estevez’s version of Billy the Kid seems to descend during the film from above-himself hot-head out for revenge to giggling loon. This isn’t really character development, more as if halfway through Estevez realised how much fun it was to laugh and so kept doing it. Charlie Sheen gets the honour of (spoilers!) being killed off halfway through. As one of the most recognisable members of the ‘Brat Pack’, here playing the leader of the gang, it works as an effective surprise.

Kiefer Sutherland has the best part though. He’s given the only subplot that approaches anything meaningful and also almost all the best lines (not that there are many). The remainder go to Jack Palance, who isn’t around enough to create a great villain but makes a commendably good hash of it in his brief time. Equally brief is Terence Stamp’s part. I have to say I’m no fan of Stamp — everywhere I’ve seen him he seems awkwardly flat, often phoning it in — but here he’s not bad. This may be because his role’s quite small and relatively subdued as it is. Patrick Wayne appears as Pat Garrett for a knowing cameo; the kind of small role which any viewer can tell Means Something, but if you don’t know what he means there’s no explanation proffered (until the final scene, anyway, when Sutherland narrates a “what happened next” for the surviving characters).

This film does not occur in real timeYoung Guns is not a particularly likeable film, managing to miss both its potential target audiences: it’s not serious-minded enough for Western enthusiasts, let down by the Brat Pack cast and (it seems) historical accuracy; but it’s surely not fun or modernised enough to appeal to a younger (or younger-minded) crowd. Though clearly it did well enough as it spawned a sequel two years later. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t particularly like it.

2 out of 5

Young Guns is on Channel 5 tomorrow, Sunday 13th November, at 11:15pm.
Young Guns is on 5USA tonight, Tuesday 30th December 2014, at 9pm. It’s sequel, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, follows at 11pm.

After four years and three months doing 100 Films, this became the first new film I’ve seen which has a title beginning with the letter Y — the last unaccounted-for letter. Hurrah!

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