Young Guns


Such is the nature of this series of reviews that we go from the sublime to…well, Young Guns (1988). To be honest, it’s hard for me to find very many positive things to say about this one. It seems to be touted as the most historically accurate movie dealing with the life and times of Mr Bonney, but that’s really only in a superficial sense – events take place out of order, characters are missing or misrepresented, and people are shown to die in ways and at times they never did. But OK, it’s a film and you have to expect some of that. For me, the biggest problem is the poor acting of the “Brat Pack” stars. There’s nothing the least bit convincing about any of the central performances nor is there any real feel for time and place.

The plot deals with the events leading up to and during the Lincoln County War. It starts off with Billy (Emilio Estevez) being taken in by Tunstall (Terence Stamp) and his integration into the group of Regulators (of course they weren’t actually known as Regulators until after Tunstall’s death) that act as hired muscle. Now, there’s a problem here right away; the Regulators were, by all accounts, a bunch of tough gunmen who were ruthless by nature. What the movie presents us with, however, is a collection of soft looking post-adolescents being tutored by the kindly Tunstall. Mind you, this set up does allow the chief villain, Murphy (Jack Palance), to toss out a loaded line about Tunstall’s interest in “educating” young boys. There’s also an allusion made to the Old World grudges fuelling the rivalry – Murphy being an Irish immigrant and Tunstall a wealthy Englishman – but nothing further comes of that. Such bad feelings weren’t the source of the conflict, but it might have made for an interesting plot device if it had been explored in more depth – after all, the script doesn’t shy away from other departures from the truth. With the assassination of Tunstall, the story gets down to the serious business of depicting as many tit-for-tat killings as can be squeezed into the running time. This gives rise to another scripting issue; the action tears headlong from one manic and confused gunfight to the next, with characters popping up and being dispatched before you get a chance to even realise who they are. There’s never a sense that you’re getting to know anything of substance about the leads, except maybe Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland). And even then the results are nothing to write home about; the former plays out an embarrassingly bad scene where he explains his motivation, and the latter is handed a horribly tacked on romance in between his poetry writing sessions. So the plot charges its way towards the climactic Battle of Lincoln – one of the better staged sequences – before coming to a pretty dumb conclusion.

All guns blazing - Emilio Estevez as the Kid.

Essentially, this film is trying to pack too many events and people into its running time, leading to clutter and an unsatisfactory lack of development. As the Kid, Emilio Estevez comes across as a kind of giggling fool with no character progression whatsoever from the opening until the ending. I already mentioned the low point of Lou Diamond Phillips getting in touch with his angst, but his “mystic Indian” schtick all through the movie is both dull and cliched. I think Kiefer Sutherland probably fares better than any of the other young stars, though it has to be said that the attempts to portray Doc Scurlock as some kind of sensitive and bookish intellectual feel too much like an affectation. Also the romantic subplot involving the Asian girl really serves no purpose other than to show what a bad man Murphy is. In truth, that’s not even necessary as Jack Palance’s presence should be enough in itself. Sure the old-timer leers and hams it up, but even so he still blows the so-called stars away every time he appears. Which brings me to the only positive aspect of the picture, the older generation of actors who make appearances. Terence Stamp brings a touch of class to Tunstall and it’s a pity he wasn’t given more to do. Brian Keith, as Buckshot Roberts, only has one scene but it says something for the man that it’s so memorable. Even Pat Wayne’s little cameo as Pat Garrett stands out and helps illustrate the gulf in class between the nominal leads and their elders.

The R2 DVD from Lionsgate is acceptable but not particularly notable. The film is given an anamorphic transfer that looks a little soft to me. The only extras are the trailer and some filmographies. I saw Young Guns when it was first released, and I wasn’t very impressed at the time. If I hadn’t been doing this series then I don’t think I would have bothered to watch it again. It represents the kind of western that doesn’t appeal to me at all, telling you more about the time it was made than the time in which the action takes place. I’m afraid it’s not a film that I could recommend.

The Long Riders

I’ve been working my way chronologically through as many films dealing with the James/Younger gang as possible. The last one I’m going to look at for now is Walter Hill’s The Long Riders from 1980. I feel sure that this is Hill’s best western, quite possibly it’s his best film period. All the other films that I have gone through in this little series have basically concentrated on one character, either Jesse James, Frank James or Bob Ford. The Long Riders differs in this respect since the focus is on the gang members collectively – the unique casting decisions playing a significant role here.

The movie charts the last years of the gang and provides little of the background found in other versions. There are, of course, numerous references throughout to the post-war hostility that is usually cited as the reason for the gang’s activities. But there are no images here of innocent farm boys driven, in spite of themselves, towards criminality. Instead, the opening of the film shows the gang as a bunch of seasoned pros coolly holding up a bank. That’s not to say that the characters are portrayed in an unsympathetic light – the script encourages the viewer to root for these men while also hissing at the bungling, murderous Pinkerton agents hunting them. The needless killing of a bank cashier by Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid), and his consequent expulsion from the gang, is meant to show us that these men are not just mindless sociopaths. It is also made clear that the killings of a number of Pinkerton men are forced on them only after those agents have murdered innocent members of their families. There’s also attention paid to the personal relationships of all the gang members, the most memorable being that between Cole Younger (David Carradine) and the tough and sexy Belle Starr (Pamela Reed). This affords Carradine the opportunity to deliver one of the best lines in the movie: “You’ll never be respectable Belle. You’re a whore… You’ll always be a whore…That’s why I like you.” 


The film is beautifully shot and paced all the way through and this is most evident in the memorable Northfield sequence. The filming of the raid and the shootout has often been compared to the style of Sam Peckinpah, and I won’t argue with that. This brutal gun battle is the real highlight of the movie with lots of slow motion to emphasise the agonising impact of each and every bullet wound. Sure this a bloody scene but not in the pointless, voyeuristic sense that seems to plague so many modern action movies.

I don’t think the unusual casting method employed here has been attempted anywhere else – all the brothers’ roles are taken by real life brothers. James and Stacy Keach are the James brothers, the Youngers are played by David, Keith and Robert Carradine (would any Jesse James film be complete without the presence of a Carradine?), Randy and Dennis Quaid are the Millers, and Nicholas and Christopher Guest are Bob and Charlie Ford. If I were to analyse each performance I might never finish this piece, so I’ll keep it brief. I feel the acting honours are shared equally between Stacy Keach’s Frank James and David Carradine’s Cole Younger. Carradine’s swaggering and tough Cole, and Keach’s thoughtful and mature Frank are the roles that anchor the film. For the others, they’re mostly as good as their parts allow them – with one exception. James Keach’s portrayal of Jesse is about the worst that I have seen. For a man’s name to have become so deeply embedded in popular mythology Jesse James must surely have been possessed of some charisma. However, the acting of James Keach makes him so wooden and blank that you have to wonder how all those vital characters around him could have acknowledged him as their leader.

So, having gone through a number of similarly themed movies, what conclusions can I come to? Firstly, I would have to say that The Long Riders is my personal favorite of all the depictions of these colorful characters. It also happens to be the one that sticks closest to the historical facts, but I can’t say that this seriously affects my opinion of their cinematic merits. The other thing that I noticed was that the character of Frank James consistently fares best of all. I was never in any doubt that this was one tough, mean hombre but I couldn’t help feeling that he was the most recognisably human figure of the bunch – of course, this may well be a result of the quality of the actors who have played the part down through the years. For myself, I found it interesting to watch the various versions almost back to back and see how they evolved; I plan to do something similar with the Wyatt Earp movies, but not right away.

The Long Riders is available on DVD from MGM in R1 and R2 in a mediocre edition. The transfer, while it is anamorphic, is badly in need of a clean-up. It is also shameful that a film which I regard as a bona fide classic of the genre comes with no extras save for a theatrical trailer. I sincerely hope that MGM sees fit to revisit this title and show it some of the respect it most certainly deserves.