*/**** Image C+ Sound B Extras B-
starring Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen
screenplay by John Fusco
directed by Christopher Cain
by Bill Chambers I know a thing or two about Billy the Kid, having written a thoroughly researched, if thoroughly awful, 240-page screenplay about him. It was just after finishing this magnum opus that I discovered Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and realized that everything I'd tried to say had already been said much more poetically, thus exiling "For What It's Worth: The Life of Billy the Kid" permanently to the bottom drawer. But at the time, I only wanted to outdo Young Guns and Young Guns II--a mission more challenging than you might think, given the films' infamy as second-generation Brat Pack fodder. John Fusco's scripts for both pictures are historically accurate, action-packed, and have a good ear for the vernacular of not only the Old West, but also the western genre. Yet the original Young Guns, especially, is miscast, directed by Christopher Cain (The Principal) like an episode of "Best of the West", and fails to either humanize Billy the Kid or justify his lore. As played by Emilio Estevez, you get the feeling that Billy's unhinged because he's running low on mousse.
The otherwise humourless Young Guns begins with a hilarious sepia-toned introduction--evocative less of western serials than of a MAD MAGAZINE spoof of them--to the film's six main stars (Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Casey Siemaszko, Dermot Mulroney) via close-ups of each in which they invariably sneer, spit tobacco, lower their bandanna, and tip their hat--you half expect the screen to go wavy and see Ralphie from A Christmas Story transfixed in reverie. From there, we meet John Tunstall (Terence Stamp), a pig-farmer and shopkeeper who stows fugitive Billy away on his farm, where Billy's inducted into Tunstall's lost-boy sect The Regulators.
When Tunstall is killed by Murphy's (Jack Palance) men in a kind of frontier-style hostile takeover (Fusco, recognizing the difficulty of condensing the politics of the Santa Fe Ring for Young Guns' demographic, counts on Palance's black hat and beady stare to do his adversarial bidding), Billy becomes the de facto leader of the now-deputized Regulators (best shot, loudest mouth), leaving Sheen to pretend that his and Estevez's characters are not obviously from the same gene pool, Sutherland to romantic pursuits, Phillips to blur ethnic lines per usual as a Mexican Navajo, Mulroney to twitch, and Siemaszko to also twitch.
A sequence of some daring begins with Phillips, face painted like Skeletor's, passing peyote around a fire. With suddenly deep, electronically-processed voices, The Regulators yell and dance and become fixated on trivial details. Yet with The Breakfast Club's Estevez present and accounted for, we're reminded of the trip passage from that John Hughes film; it's at such times that the stunt casting of Young Guns, instead of transcending, subverting, or exposing the western genre, makes you wish the actors would ditch the horses, call up Molly Ringwald, and order a pizza. The movie is founded on the same premise as the Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen video franchise: here are the twins going to Paris; here they are as private eyes; here they are as archaeologists. Young Guns sends a bunch of TIGER BEAT idols to the tickle trunk to pick out spurs that jingle-jangle-jingle without any regard for how this thumbnoses the genre. Or Fusco's script, for that matter.
Artisan re-releases Young Guns on DVD in a Special Edition, with the film itself boasting of a fresh audio-video transfer. Boasting may not be the appropriate word: the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is of poor contrast and shadow detail, and thanks to a fairly consistent ghosting effect, many shots appear to have been sourced from VHS. Colours are bland and muted, though for that I blame Cain's misappropriation of talented cinematographer Dean Semler (We Were Soldiers, Dances with Wolves). The unimaginative Eighties soundmix, meanwhile, is presented in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 options (the latter unlisted on the cover art), neither of which kicks into substantial gear until the climactic siege--and even then, not where the subwoofer is concerned. The DTS track is less shrill than the Dolby one and manages a slightly more convincing illusion of spatiality.
The DVD includes a pleasant-enough feature-length commentary that reunites Mulroney, Phillips, and Siemaszko. They seem to know that Young Guns is a dud but remember getting along well (Siemaszko's "in character" flatulence aside) and admire the "Mad Max" quality Cain was striving for. And they don't take the movie too seriously, mocking its assertion that peyote grows in the snow, for instance. A subtitle "trivia track" is another halfway-decent companion piece, as it strikes a good balance between film stuff ("Jack Hofstra edited Gone Fishin'"--and I'm sure he wanted you to know that) and historical footnotes.
Elsewhere on the platter, the 31-minute documentary "Billy the Kid - The True Story" is a nice overview of the man and the myth courtesy historians, all of whom live in houses that resemble the Outback Steakhouse. Aside: Although this 16x9-enhanced featurette claims that little is known of Billy the Kid prior to his mother's relocation to New Mexico and marriage to a miner named William Antrim, strong evidence suggests that Billy (born Henry McCarty) spent the first few years of his life in New York City, and that his birth father was killed in the Draft Riots, which were recently depicted in Gangs of New York. Trailers for Young Guns, Dune, Reservoir Dogs, Rambo Trilogy, and Total Recall round out the disc, whose extras outshine the main event. A cardboard sleeve ridden with "bullet holes" slips over the keepcase. Originally published: April 17, 2003.