In late 1988, as the first year of high school faded to summer, a film rose on the horizon to grab my attention and not let go.
That film was Young Guns. That said, with no cinema in our rural and regional home, any excitement over a new film was suppressed until it appeared in the new release section of the video shop.
Delayed gratification was life, then, not a desired virtue.
When this film appeared, I literally ran all the way home.
Young Guns tells the story of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War of New Mexico in the 1870’s.
Some hundred years and change later, Hollywood had fallen out of love with the Western. Action and adventure movies of that era typically saw the future cast of The Expendables carve their way through the enemy of the day (Russians, usually). As a fan of westerns, this cool reboot tickled my interest no end.
The golden age of Westerns entered my world via Saturday afternoon re-runs of John Wayne movies. On Saturday night, Bill Collins might show Shane or The Magnificent Seven, and my favourite Lewis and Martin films were the Westerns.
Notwithstanding, enjoyable as they were, these were not films of my generation.
The actors starring in Young Guns definitely lived smack bang in the sweet spot. Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen and Keifer Sutherland, arguably the hottest actors in Hollywood at that time. Sheen had just starred in Wall Street and Platoon, Sutherland was firing, Estevez a founding member of the Brat Pack.
As the film opens we find Billy the Kid aimless and lost until local trader, John Tunstall (Terrence Stamp) offers him righteous work and a place among his Regulators. John is a man who believes the power of redemption via clean living, good manners and honest toil, offering a second chance to wayward young blokes by way of serving as ranch hands and, well, regulating stuff.
Back at the ranch we meet the rest of the crew around the dinner table. Dick (Charlie Sheen) is the serious and responsible leader of the group, an incredibly ironic role looking back now, who clashes with Billy from the get-go.
Billy’s character manifests that cocky little smart arse in the Stephen Milne mould, albeit one who shoots people like it isn’t even a thing. Doc Scurlock (Keifer Sutherland) is the sensitive, bookish, poetic type, Jose Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) a half Mexican Indian with a disturbing proficiency for knife play.
Rounding out the table is Dirty Steve (Dermott Mulroney), a man untouched by modern dentistry or hygiene, and the nervous and more than a little wet Charlie (Casey Siemasko).
As they eat, and chat, you see that this intervention program for at-risk youth is successfully straightening out these rascally scamps.
The complication is that Tunstall is a business rival of a corrupt and evil cattle merchant called Murphy (Jack Palance). Deciding that Lincoln is not big enough for the two of them, he arranges to have Tunstall murdered on his way into town.
To say this unleashes a series of events that impact the quality of life of many people in Lincoln is an understatement. The Regulators get deputised to go after the men who killed Tunstall, though it emerges quickly that ‘justice’ for Billy could easily be substituted for the word ‘shoot.’
This heavy handed execution of warrants, and cowboys, means the authorities come after them and the Regulators flee to the wilderness.
While holed up at an isolated ranch, they are tracked down by Buckshot Bill Roberts (Brian Keith, he of Hardcastle and McCormick) who takes refuge in a toilet and shoots Dick and Doc, freeing Charlie Sheen up to work on other films and get to ‘winning’.
With the death of Dick, Billy takes charge and leads the boys on a mission to escape the army of bounty hunters and plethora of posses searching for them. Inevitably, they end up surrounded with no method escape. As you do, they seek guidance from the spirit world.
Chavez collects peyote and they get all hallucinogenic. It made a mark on me because it was the first time I had seen blokes trying to solve a problem by getting wasted.
The tripping scene reveals something about each character, amplifying their personalities. Billy laughs maniacally, Doc composes poetry, Charlie engages in a turbo spew and Dirty Steve delivers a favourite line of the film when he yells ‘Did you see the size of that chicken?’
Chavez, having moved assuredly through the spirit world, discovers the answer and they head off to expected safety.
Unfortunately, legendary bounty hunter John Kinney (we know he is famous because his name forms most of Charlie’s dialogue for the remainder of the film) locates the lads and they are forced to escape via a thorny forest.
Then comes a seminal scene in the film. While discussing the merits of fighting on, Billy makes a speech about your pals, and how having good pals was the most important thing in the world.
That made an impact on a lad heading into puberty and beyond, and there was synergy with the way I felt about friendship against adversity. Billy also ignored the odds against them to remain singularly focussed on their goal of bringing Murphy to task. At twelve, this was attractive too, despite the sociopathic and criminal undertones.
In Mexico, word arrives that a great friend of Tunstall’s and the Regulators will be murdered in his home by Murphy men. The man who delivers this news is Pat Garrett, offering both the worst acting performance of the film and a real sense of foreshadowing the sequel. With a now famous call of ‘Regulators, Let’s ride!’ the gang head back to Lincoln to save the day.
Alas, it is all a trap and the house is surrounded by the factions out to get them. In keeping with the tradition of action films of the 1980’s, none of the thousands of bullets fired into the timber house hit anyone, defying laws of physics and the overall concept of heavy firepower.
Of course in rewatching you must suspend disbelief. It is no great achievement to look back at films you enjoyed and note all the things now implausible. My twelve-year-old self did not give a toss – he just wanted them to get away.
Billy reveals his smart arse personality once again, inflaming the situation by light-heartedly shooting a man in the forehead as punchline to a sight gag. The situation remains in standoff even when the US Cavalry arrives to ‘observe’ proceedings. Over the course of the siege, a lot of character development reaches a natural conclusion. When Chavez appears to run away, Dirty Steve unleashes his inner racist and suggests Chavez made love to horses.
Murphy arrives and begins a series of one-armed push-ups while instructing his men to end the siege. That is how I remember it, anyway. inevitably, to break the deadlock, they set fire to the property.
The remaining Regulators begin throwing material out of the house, perhaps under the mistaken belief it was a balloon that might float away. In slow motion, a chest tumbles from a window. When it hits the ground, Billy emerges and begins shooting with suddenly amazing accuracy.
Doc, Dirty Steve and Charlie burst out of a door and make their way out, firing from the hip like blokes born to shoot in slow motion.
With a yelp, Chavez returns with a string of horses to aid their getaway, redeeming himself in the eyes of Steve and manifesting the importance of having ‘pals’. Charlie dies after killing John Kinney, Steve buys it after helping Chavez onto a horse, while Doc and Billy leap the barricade and escape town.
Or do they? As Murphy stands in the street, declaring his dissatisfaction with the outcome to the sky, Billy returns and nails him right between the eyes with a six shooter boasting the ballistic capabilities of a high-end sniper rifle.
In the voiceover, Doc Spurlock reveals the denouement. Billy was later hunted down and killed by Pat Garrett, and buried next to Charlie. Doc escaped to New York, while Chavez went to California for a quieter life. Much later, someone crept into the graveyard and inscribed the word ‘Pals’ on his gravestone.
Young Guns moved me on many fronts. It combined the little known genre of Western movies and cock rock music with plenty of gunplay. The character of Billy was appealing in its chaos, much like the Joker offered up by Heath Ledger many years later. There were hidden themes of the importance of standing up to bullies and also staying loyal to your friends.
All these things spoke to me.
But it was the uneasy alliance between Regulators that appealed most. They were a diverse bunch prepared to unite behind a common cause to achieve something. A worthy message.
But seriously, did you see the size of that chicken?