From the ages of about twelve to seventeen, I was alone for much of my downtime. I didn’t have a girlfriend, so if I weren’t at basketball practice, I was lounging around the house, either listening to hip-hop or watching my favorite movies over and over, quoting dialogue, imagining being a different person in a different world.
That all began with Young Guns II.
I was ten years old in the summer of 1990.
In August, we were on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. My brother was seventeen and he didn’t come along for the trip; my sister, who was fourteen, brought her friend and, as teenagers do, the two of them would go off and do their thing all day long. So I was solo with my parents much of the time.
The week we were there, it rained. A lot. One day, my parents, understandably annoyed at paying thousands of dollars to spend a week on the beach only to be stuck inside every day, decided to take me to the movies. I’m sure there were other flicks they would have preferred to see that day – Ghost, Presumed Innocent, and Die Hard 2 were all out at the same time – but they asked me and I chose Young Guns II.
Because I saw the film in the theater as a ten-year-old, I was still young enough to just enjoy a film for what it is, rather than what it is not, what it could have been, or what larger statements it says about our society. I didn’t watch it cynically looking for plot holes or constantly comparing it to the original. I just watched it. And I loved it. All of it. From beginning to end.
The film was included in the original outline for my new book, but I took it out because that book is a logical, reasoned defense of artists and projects. My love for Young Guns II is anything but logical and reasonable.
“Do I look dead?”
My favorite thing about the film, both then and now, is Emilio Estevez’s performance as Billy the Kid. I knew he was an actor playing a role, but his youthful cockiness, underlined by that maniacal laugh, made him Billy to me.
He was the coolest dude in the West, the outlaw all of the others wanted to be. A smartass with a quick tongue and a quicker trigger finger that wasn’t afraid of anything and always knew he could get himself out of the stickiest of situations. He was the Kid.
How could a ten-year-old not gravitate towards that?
This is weird, but it was also the first film that made me feel something, the first movie to which I had an emotional connection. To me, it’s a movie about the strong bonds of friendship. Even early on, I felt nostalgia for lost friendships when Billy says to Doc (Kiefer Sutherland), “We made a pact, remember? You, me and Chavez – pals forever.” I had barely started to live my own life, but I was drawn to the notion of close friendships and I could feel a deep sense of connection and camaraderie throughout, like when Billy rescues Doc and Chavez, when Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) lovingly calls him “Chivato,” and when Billy tells the lawman, “You obviously don’t know the meaning of the word ‘pals.’ You think I’d hand my friend over to a bucket of mule dung like you? That’s an insult.”
I felt pain and sadness when Brushy Bill Roberts – claiming to be the elderly Billy – says, “I have my scars.” When Billy sees Chavez’s mortal wound at the end and almost mutters, “I guess I really got us into this time,” realizing that his actions led to the death of nearly everyone in his posse, including his two best friends, but not himself, it wrecks me. It fills me with a sense of loss and wasted potential and disappointing people that trust you. That resonated with me.
“I’ll make you famous”
At some point during that week of vacation, we were in a store and I, still floating on the cloud of the film, found a pair of toy guns and a holster. My parents must have known because they bought it for me and, as kids do, I wore it constantly, drawing my guns, spinning them on my finger, practicing all sorts of Billy the Kid-type shots. I walked around quoting Billy’s line, “Yoohoo! I’ll make you famous” so much that it’s still one of the things my mother remembers (and mimics) from my childhood.
To this day, I still get chills when I see him say it in the film.
I think part of the reason the movie resonated with me is that it didn’t have the self-seriousness of the first film. The first Young Guns is slow, partly because it needs to tell the origin of the Regulators and the reason for the Lincoln County War, but also because it wants to be a character study with Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen) fighting Billy for control of the group. (I believe this is also the reason it was much more critically praised than the second film.)
There are some wonderful moments to be sure and the final battle – from Chavez’s surprise return with horses to Billy popping out of a trunk guns blazing and ultimately hitting Murphy between the eyes – is nothing short of fantastic (and funny). But it takes a long time to get to that point. In the sequel, the action is almost immediate and prevalent throughout, and though I’m sure I’d mock the dialogue had I seen it for the first time today, at the time I found it to be light and quick, punctuated by funny moments like Arkansas Dave (Christian Slater) desperately wanting to be a known man and constantly claiming he was the leader of the gang.
I can’t pick a favorite scene, but a contender is the killing of Bob Ollinger. At one point late in the film, Billy is locked up and Ollinger, the Deputy Sherriff, threatens him by telling him that, instead of bullets, he has eighteen dimes in each barrel of his shotgun. Later, after the sound of a gunshot brings him outside, Ollinger freezes when he sees Billy in a second floor window across the street holding his shotgun.
Look at this:
That is great! Ollinger’s muttering of “shit” when he realizes he’s a goner, Billy’s line of “Best dollar-eighty I ever spent,” and that laugh all combine – along with the banjo music – for a terrific scene.
“Let’s finish the game”
Young Guns II is full of excellent scenes like that. When moving between them, the film stumbles at times, but those moments are, for me at least, powerful, emotional and, insightful. There is the poignancy of the three of remaining Regulators being reunited; the courageousness of Doc, in the last moments of his life, saying, “let’s finish the game,” and he and Billy exchange a look before Doc sacrifices himself; the excitement of Billy’s escape; and, ultimately, the sadness and resignation that all of it – the war, the fun, their friendship, their lives – are over as Chavez nods and stumbles into the darkness.
While the script has its soft spots, the performances, led by Estevez, more than make up for it. In hindsight, the cast of this film is pretty loaded. In addition to the main characters – Estevez, Sutherland, Phillips, Slater – there is Alan Ruck, William Petersen, James Coburn, Bradley Whitford, even Viggo Mortensen.
The score is also a highlight. Every one of the film’s great scenes is backed up by terrific music that sounds perfectly at home in the period, all of which gives the movie more emotion than is on the page. And, of course, there’s Bon Jovi’s classic “Blaze of Glory.”
It brought in $44 million at the box office, which doesn’t seem like much today, but twenty-five years ago, that was a success. Domestically, it outperformed Gremlins 2, Rocky V, Joe Versus the Volcano, Postcards from the Edge, doubled the box office of the Mel Gibson adaptation of Hamlet, and quadrupled that of The Two Jakes. It was also successful in the home video department and, when compared to the $10 million budget, was an unqualified success commercially, if not critically.
“When the spirit horse comes, then it’s over”
In terms of music and film, I saw and heard things that most kids my age did not. I was listening to N.W.A and Public Enemy and watching Glory and Lethal Weapon 2. I’m not sure if that had anything to do with it, but I became an amateur critic when I was still in my early teens, mocking most popular things and at the same time becoming very cynical towards the world at large.
However, I was still young enough to be enthralled when I saw Young Guns II in that Maryland movie theater over twenty-five years ago. It stuck with me and even as I got older and fell in love with films that were grittier (Juice), darker (Se7en), funnier (White Men Can’t Jump) or more elegant (The Godfather), it remained one of my favorites, an outlier compared to the other films the populated my personal top ten.
Some people would refer to this as a guilty pleasure film, but as I get older, I realize the smugness of such a term. Yes, pop art can be both subjective and objective, but regardless of a film’s quality or impact or reviews, it all comes down to the fact that you like what you like.
And I adore Young Guns II.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.