In the movies, Billy (the Kid) Bonney, whose bloody exploits during the 1878-80 Lincoln County wars made him a legend before his death at 21, has been variously portrayed as young Lochinvar, confused boy, or reckless killer. That's one reason "Young Guns" (citywide) is a surprise. Though it pales beside such antecedents as Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun" or Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," it has a slick, smoky vigor.
Writer John Fusco ("Crossroads") and actor Emilio Estevez draw Bonney as a total psychopath, an embittered kid who takes pure joy from killing. And Fusco also suggests that Billy frequently received credit for a group effort by the "regulators," hired by British immigrant John Tunstall. They rode out on a vendetta after Tunstall's murder by a rival rancher.
In "The Left-Handed Gun," Paul Newman played Billy as a high-spirited youngster headed for doom. Estevez goes further. His Billy is sullen and snappish during peacetime, but he blossoms in war. A notably dirty fighter, he giggles delightedly after gunning someone down, whoops with near-carnal delight when he finds himself and his gang besieged by several posses and the U.S. Cavalry. He's a baby-faced Nietszchean warrior.
It's a remarkable performance and Estevez doesn't soften many edges. This Kid is purely and simply nuts. He's a born killer, and the saner types around him, brother Charlie Sheen as regulator leader Dick Brewer and Kiefer Sutherland as the studious romantic, Doc (both excellent acting jobs), can't match his battle instincts because they're bound by scruples. They don't have Billy's tigerish impulse for instant slaughter.
The movie is more of an ensemble piece, perhaps partially inspired by Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." But here, the fablelike structure is both its strength and major flaw.
We see Bonney as a madman, yet "Young Guns" is also a paean to teen-age camaraderie and loyalty, with an unlikely bow to sappy young love. Since the corruption is so all-pervasive, the chief villain--Jack Palance as rancher Murphy--so odious, it becomes easy to rationalize, amorally, that a psycho is just what you need when your back is against the wall. "Young Guns" could have used more of the near-tragic intensity of the Penn or Peckinpah versions.
The casting here initially seems a teen-movie stunt. Lou Diamond Phillips plays taciturn half-breed, Chavez Y Chavez--a character who recalls "Seven Samurai's" virtuoso swordsman; Casey Siemaszko, the clownish pugilist Charlie Bowdre;and Dermot Mulroney, Dirty Steve. Yet they blend together almost flawlessly. And so do the more mature actors: Palance, Terence Stamp as Tunstall, Terry O'Quinn as lawyer McSwain and, in brief, resonant cameos, Brian Keith as a bounty hunter and Pat Wayne (son of John) as Pat Garrett.
Director Christopher Cain has, at various times, shown a flair for landscape and action ("Where the River Runs Black") and for subtler character ("The Stone Boy"). Here, he gets both. He's working in bold, heavy swatches of humor, violence and lyricism, and his cameraman Dean Semler, ("The Road Warrior") keeps the landscapes looking stripped down, austerely handsome.
To say "Young Guns" (MPAA-rated R for language and violence) is one of the best big Westerns of the '80s doesn't mean much: Westerns have been almost moribund since 1976. But it does hint at this movie's surprising vitality, bloody ebullience and violent impetuosity--qualities it shares with crazy little Billy.