To live outside the law, you must be honest .... --Bob Dylan Lyricism and violence are the two contradictory poles of the American movie Western--the serene land, the wildness of the gun-law life--and in “Young Guns II” (citywide), a brilliant action director and a fine, deep cast keep us swinging in crazy exhilaration between them.
It’s a sequel that easily surpasses its original, “Young Guns.” Full of sound, gunfire, fury and scorchingly beautiful landscapes--arroyos that explode in dusty death, seedy sun-spattered towns, gnomishly strange outcroppings of rocks and lakes swimming dangerously under wildly steep cliffs--"Young Guns II” generates more sheer visual excitement than any Western since Peckinpah and Leone were in their last ‘70s prime.
Dramatically and historically, it’s not very deep or rich. There are too many easy modern parallels. But director Geoff Murphy, the actors and cinematographer Dean (“Mad Max”) Semler keep churning it into life.
As much as Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future III"--a big, sunny, billowy cowboy pastiche--"Young Guns” is by a man who loves Westerns, but won’t entomb them in sentiment or celebration. The mood he is going for, and gets, is the fierce Kurosawa-soaked West of the ‘70s: the baroque blood-spattered visions of the Vietnam era. But it’s also tinged with a John Ford elegiac feel. It’s about the revolt of the dispossessed against the rich and smug--another theme embraced by Ford.
The movie is another in an endless line of retellings of the complex legend of Billy the Kid, eternal movie teen-age killer and cattle rustler. For producer-writer John Fusco and star Emilio Estevez, acting at the top of his form, Billy is a high-spirited kid, a half-psycho rebel with two virtues--defiance of authority and loyalty to his pals--two of whom (Kiefer Sutherland as Doc, Lou Diamond Phillips as Chavez) survive from the original. New chums Christian Slater and Balthazar Getty are there to provide rhymes for Billy’s craziness and youth.
Estevez again plays Billy as a giggly prankster with a hair-trigger temper, full of impish bravado, and it’s part of the movie’s theme that he is entangled in his own legend. Like a young rock star, high on fame, he keeps going over the edge, dragging his buddies with him.
The men arrayed against Billy include William Petersen as ex-friend Pat Garrett, Scott Wilson as Gen. Lew Wallace and James Coburn--who played Garrett in Peckinpah’s great 1973 “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid"--as rancher Chisum. They’re steadier, soberer, more cunning, but they keep getting stabbed by Billy’s hidden edge: unpredictability. “I sentence you to death, death, death,” a judge dourly informs the teen-age outlaw, who jubilantly fires back, “You can go to hell, hell, hell!” (This seemingly archetypal movie exchange comes, allegedly, from life.)
“Young Guns” broke off with Billy in savage triumph, busting out of Lincoln County flames after murdering the local sheriff. The sequel follows his downward spiral into death, his upward zoom into legend. And Fusco probably cheats the material by leaving an escape hatch for Billy: framing the story, in flashback, from the viewpoint of Ollie “Brush Billy” Roberts (also Estevez), a man who made a dubious 1950 claim that he was the Kid. It’s a bit like ending “Oedipus Rex” with an eye transplant, or “Hamlet” with a family reunion.
Like many of the best Westerns, “Young Guns II” sets up an opposition between frontier and civilization. Like most of the Billy the Kid movies, it comes down hard for the frontier free spirits, Billy and his bunch, and condemns the corrupt, two-faced civilization of the Wallaces and Chisums.
The flaws in Fusco’s script--the diva death scenes for Sutherland and Phillips, the gauche nude-on-horseback coda for Billy’s hooker friend, Jane (Jenny Wright)--all come from a tendency to soft-touch Billy and go for big, obvious effects. There’s nothing as darkly grand as the best of Peckinpah’s version, little of its sense of the frontier’s twilight, the ghastly betrayal of faith and friendship. This is a pungent, violently involving movie--far more so than recent overhyped action hits like “Die Hard 2"--but it washes away too fast afterward. It’s a virtuosic display that doesn’t cut deep enough, shying away from tragedy and gloom.
But Murphy, a New Zealander whose neglected, powerful “Utu” was a kind of transplanted Western, demonstrates in “Young Guns 2" the qualities that make Westerns work best: moral fury, explosive energy, grungy lyricism, a sense of space and sweep and raunchy humor. Like the Australian directors who kept the Western alive in a transmuted foreign form in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Murphy shows that a fresh, outsider’s eye may be all that’s needed to bring a “dead” genre back to life. He’s another pilgrim come to conquer the territory. Here, he almost does.