Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Film Appreciation - Reap the Whirlwind

This week in Film Appreciation, Cody Hamman makes pals with the 1988 Western Young Guns. Regulators, mount up!

Set in 1878, Young Guns is a telling of the true story of the Lincoln County War and is one of the films that I have considered My Favorite Movie over the years.

The film begins with rancher John Tunstall (played by Terence Stamp) witnessing a young man running from a group of armed pursuers. Tunstall invites the youth, who introduces himself as William/Billy Bonney, out of his hiding place and takes him back to his ranch. We find that Billy is just the latest of several troubled young men staying at the ranch.

As explained to Billy by one the boys, Charley, in a speech that was sampled in the Nate Dogg and Warren G rap song "Regulate" in 1994, the group is called The Regulators. They were all runaways and vagrants, all of them criminals in some way, mostly thieves (Billy claims his crime was that he killed somebody), then Tunstall saved them from the streets. He educates them, teaches them manners and how to read and write, and in exchange they earn their keep by tending to Tunstall's cattle and "regulating" any stealing of his property.

As they both have "a beef outfit and a store", Tunstall is in competition with another rancher, Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance), and it's an ugly competition, with Murphy often threatening Tunstall and accusing him of theft and sabotage. Since Lincoln County Sheriff Brady has his life savings invested in Murphy's store, the odds are stacked against Tunstall... and ultimately, Tunstall is massacred by Murphy's men in front of the Regulators.

With the help of Tunstall's lawyer Alex McSween (Terry O'Quinn), the Regulators go around Sheriff Brady and are deputized by a Justice of the Peace. With warrants in hand, the Regulators set off to arrest Tunstall's murderers... but Billy has a different course of action in mind, he's only interested in killing the killers. A scene that was supposed to involve the arrest of one man ends with nine men "dead or at death's door".

In the chaos that ensues from this, many more people end up dead as the Regulators get bounty hunters, the law, and even the U.S. Army sent after them, and a legend is born when the newspapers nickname Billy "Billy the Kid".

Young Guns was a successful revisitation to the Western genre in a time when it had gone out of style, drawing in the '80s audience with an interesting story, exciting gun battles, a rock-infused musical score, and a cast of awesome young actors.

The ensemble of characters and actors who make up the group of Regulators is fantastic. Each character is interesting in his own way, each role is well cast, and everyone has his own story in the film.

Emilio Estevez is Billy, irreverent and seemingly out of control. Estevez's awesome laugh fits the character perfectly, when Billy gets to kill people he appears to be having as much fun as a child playing a game.

Charlie Sheen is Dick, the most serious and responsible of the bunch. He appeared to be Tunstall's right hand man and he wants to play things by the book, but that's impossible with Billy.

Kiefer Sutherland is the poet-at-heart Doc, who falls in love with a young Chinese woman who lives with Murphy. Murphy presents himself as her guardian, when he actually "owns" her and uses her as "house entertainment".

Casey Siemaszko is Charley, a fun guy who's a big fan of expanding his vocabulary and considers himself a pugilist. He too finds love along the way.

Dermot Mulroney plays "Dirty Steve", so called because of his terrible hygiene. He's filthy, his teeth are rotten, he's always got a jaw full of tobacco. Steve's arc in the film deals with his racist dislike of and eventual respect for fellow Regulator Chavez y Chavez, a Mexican Indian.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays Chavez y Chavez, an interesting character with a heartbreaking backstory. Chavez has always been a favorite of mine, initially winning me over because of his choice of weapon: he's an expert knife thrower.

Geoffrey Blake as J. McCloskey joins the Regulators after Billy's arrival, and later in the film is involved in a rather disturbing scene where Billy accuses him of being a traitor.

One of the most entertaining scenes in the film, probably another which helped the film connect with the youth audience, occurs when the Regulators find themselves out in the wilderness with no idea which direction to go in, as there's danger on all sides. Chavez leads them in a peyote ritual to help them find the way, and only Dick does not partake. Stoned out of their minds, everyone's voice gets deep and slow, Billy's thinking slows down, Charley feels great, Doc talks of love and butterflies... and hilariously, Steve hallucinates a giant chicken and thinks he's invisible because he's "in the spirit world".

Another memorable scene features Billy toying with bounty hunter Texas Joe Grant in a bar, annoying the man until he threatens to "spank your little bottom blue".

Young Guns was released on VHS when I was five years old, so that was when I first saw it. My father being a big action fan and my older brother being in the right age demographic for the film, it was watched quite often over the next few years as it played on the movie channels.

The film culminates in an extended standoff and shootout, with the Regulators trapped in McSween's house by Murphy's men and Army soldiers. This sequence goes on for nearly twenty minutes and was one of the first great cinematic shootouts I ever witnessed, so I thought it was one of the coolest things ever. It remains one of my favorite film sequences to this day.

Tom Cruise makes a very quick, unrecognizable cameo during the shootout, catching a bullet fired by Charley.

Young Guns fell out of my regular viewing rotation for a while in the early '90s, until I dug a taped-off-cable VHS copy of the film out of our collection in late 1994. Rewatching the film again at ten/eleven years old, that's when I truly, fully appreciated it. That's when Young Guns became My Favorite Movie. I became obsessed with Billy the Kid, reading everything about him that I could get my hands on. I wrote a fan fiction script for Young Guns III, writing my friends in as a new group of Regulators led by Billy, and we had shootout games based on the script during recess every day for quite a while. I invited a friend over to my house for a Young Guns/Young Guns II double feature, after which he borrowed my copy of the first movie and got disapproval from his mother when she walked in as Billy delivers his final line to Murphy. He told me this story at school and I quoted the line, which got me in trouble from a teacher who overheard.

Young Guns is a great, very entertaining movie. I may not specifically reference it as My Favorite Movie anymore, but it is one of my favorites and I will always hold it in high regard, with nostalgia for that time when it was #1.


  1. In the scene in the bar with bounty hunter Joe Grant, who was the actress that was hanging all over him? She is exquisitely beautiful, and I have never seen her in anything else . . . that I know of.

    1. I think that would be Richela Renkun. Young Guns is her only credit.