Thursday 5 June 2014

Movie Review: Young Guns (1988)

A western with a cast dominated by a batch of up-and-coming Hollywood male stars, Young Guns is a fairly faithful account of Billy the Kid's early days. Rampant youthfulness dominates the film but cannot make up for the lack of depth.

It's the 1870s in Lincoln County, New Mexico. English cattle rancher John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) specializes in rescuing troubled youth, giving them jobs and an education at his ranch. His latest recruit is young Billy Bonney (Emilio Estevez), a boyish and cocky troublemaker who has apparently already killed a man. Billy joins the other ranch hands in Tunstall's employment: the romantic Doc (Kiefer Sutherland), the serious Dick (Charlie Sheen), the half-Indian Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), the appropriately nicknamed Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and his friend Charlie (Casey Siemaszko). Collectively they call themselves the Regulators.

Tunstall is locked in a nasty dispute over control of the cattle business with Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance), who has bought the law and is trying to monopolize the local industry. Tunstall has an ally in respected lawyer Alexander McSween (Terry O'Quinn), but this does not save him: Murphy's men kill Tunstall in cold bold. The Regulators vow revenge and are initially deputized to act as lawmen, with Dick assuming a leadership role. But Billy has his own version of dispensing justice, and starts killing rather than arresting men associated with Murphy, further inflaming what became known as the Lincoln County War.

Young Guns forms a cactus pack of sorts to maraud across the west, the six Regulators boasting the presence of Sheen (Platoon), Phillips (La Bamba) and Sutherland (The Lost Boys) soon after their break-out roles. Estevez was already hot property with the success of Stakeout, Repo Man, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire. It is an impressive collection of burgeoning talent, and Young Guns is brimming with the potential of ambitious young men. That some of their hairstyles and mannerisms are more suited to the 1980s rather than the 1870s does not seriously diminish the available enjoyment. Estevez gets the showiest role as Billy The Kid, and he enjoys the self-propelling wild-eyed thrill that comes with leaving morality to one side and just engaging in mischievous killing.

The story itself is a slightly fictionalized account of a real and violent dispute characterized by mindless tit-for-tat killings, where men with more guns than brains tried to muscle each other out of the cattle business, and violent revenge took precedence over justice. It was fertile territory for the likes of Billy to shoot first and ask no questions, and director Christopher Cain inserts scenes of well-staged, noisy and often violent gunfights at regular intervals throughout the movie.

It's when the guns are silent that the film is caught short. After the relatively early demise of John Tunstall, the John Fusco script struggles to find a weighty presence capable of carrying the movie. The Regulators are young, naive and simply not very interesting people when they are not engaged in shooting or being shot at. The elementary attempts at some meaningful exchanges of dialogue are quickly blown into the winds of shallowness.

And so Young Guns awkwardly gropes around trying to find various methods of killing time between the action set pieces. Doc falls in love with Murphy's Chinese slave; Dick and Billy compete for the group's leadership, Chavez sneers at everyone who insults his ethnicity, and Dirty Steve spits a lot. None of it is deep, and all of it is mundane.

A rough and ready supporting cast does succeed in bringing to life some real wild west characters. Lawman Pat Garrett (Patrick Wayne), Sheriff William Brady (Danny Kamin), frontiersman Buckshot Roberts (Brian Keith) and outlaw / bounty hunter John Kinney (Allen Keller) make brief but often noisy appearances to play their roles in a nasty little war.

Young Guns fires away at the legends of the west, generating plenty of energetic movement but limited substance.

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