These days, the Western is pretty much defined by its cliches. You basically can’t make one of these suckers without horses, sun-drenched mesas, bloody shoot-outs, villains with big ugly mustaches, a token bordello scene, a token Mexican bordello scene, and many, many scenes in which scruffy-sexy men in desperate need of a bath sit around bantering about their pasts while downing shots of the richest, rawest whiskey they can find. I’m sure I’m not the only one who relates to each and every one of these things in a deeply personal way.
Young Guns (1988) was a fluke hit, a plastic six-shooter marathon in which an appealing collection of young actors were dressed up in leather and buckskin and given absolutely nothing of interest to do. Young Guns II is a different sort of fluke. It was directed by the talented New Zealander Geoff Murphy, who made the explosive and funny Utu (1983). That movie was sort of a Western in its own right — though it was set in New Zealand and rooted in the complexities of racial violence. Damned if Murphy hasn’t taken his teen-dream cast, his how-to-sell-out-quickly blockbuster-sequel assignment, and tried to come up with…a real movie! He doesn’t succeed (clichés remain clichés, even when they’re well-crafted), yet the film is an honorable try. More than anything, it makes you wonder whether the new generation of Hollywood actors, gifted as some of them are, are ever going to grow up on camera.
Young Guns II is yet another Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid saga. During a law-enforcement crackdown, the wild-boy outlaw Billy (Emilio Estevez) is double-crossed by the governor of Old New Mexico — he had been promised immunity for his courtroom testimony — and reunited with the two other surviving members of the Regulator gang, the courtly Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland) and the laughably stoic Mexican Indian Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips). Along with several new recruits, they head for the Mexican border, pursued by an official posse. Leading the outfit is Billy’s one-time soul mate, Pat Garrett (William Petersen), who’s now equipped with a badge and an attitude.
Emilio Estevez can be an amusing cutup, but he really has only two modes: He giggles and flashes his doofus grin, and he gets mighty teed off. Billy, though, is supposed to be the hero (he narrates the movie in flashback), and he’s not enough of a hero. There’s something too self-satisfied about Estevez. He’s the rebel as preening puppy. The movie could have used more of Christian Slater, who, cast as a rowdy Regulator named Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh, recalls the young Jack Nicholson not just in his dry, crackling-with-sarcasm voice but in the laconic determination behind it.
Shot for shot, Young Guns II has a raw, sturdy look. Murphy obviously knows his Peckinpah, and he lets the actors establish their own loose, joshing rhythms. There’s a good barnyard fight scene between Phillips and Slater and a tart little performance by Jenny Wright as a silky-voiced young Southern madame. Yet whenever a few of the Young Guns get together and have to behave like soulful cowboys, the movie stops dead in its tracks. The trouble with so many of today’s young actors is that there’s no deep-seated yearning or fury in their performances. They just seem like well-adjusted California kids putting on a show for a few hours. As the movie goes on, a couple of the Regulators are gunned down, and all it really stirred in me was a wish that they not be reunited in that big valley in the sky for Young Guns III. C