Not content to merely continue the "mod" Western style perpetuated by "Young Guns" two years ago, with its 1980s colloquial language and hip sensibilities, "Young Guns II" comes along and adds revisionist history.
This sequel, a continuation of the Billy the Kid story, with cocky Emilio Estevez returning in the role, uses a framing device that spins off of an apparently true incident: In the 1950s a man in his 90s claimed to be William H. Bonney, Billy the Kid in the flesh.
Was this old guy really Billy the Kid? "Young Guns II" takes his story literally. And, as a result, takes away the film's climactic punch. Since he's telling the story, we know Pat Garrett doesn't kill him.
But with Estevez emoting under tons of makeup, telling the film's story in flashback form with an occasional voiceover narration, it's little more than a ripoff of "Little Big Man," in which Dustin Hoffman was a 121-year-old man recalling his own Old West experiences.
As the film opens with this conceit it can be taken as a warning that Western purists should set aside all preconceptions, that history buffs should make a special effort to suspend disbelief and that the bloody body count will rival "Die Hard 2," "Total Recall" and "RoboCop 2." And that is not meant as a compliment.
The main difference between "Young Guns II" and these other current action films, however, is that Estevez's Billy shoots anyone who crosses him, including innocent victims. He's no hero, but the film, relying heavily on Estevez's charm, tries to have it both ways. When another character expresses dismay that Billy is being imitated in the streets by children, parents in the audience will doubtless cringe as well.
"Young Guns II" echoes the "Indiana Jones" pictures more than anything else in its first half, as Billy's exploits are chronicled in a rapid-fire series of action sequences that have him escaping various deadly situations in the nick of time.
Soon Billy manages to link up again with bookish schoolteacher "Doc" (Kiefer Sutherland) and Mexican-Indian Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) from the first film, as well as a wild-eyed young outlaw (Christian Slater), an ill-equipped farmer (Alan Ruck) and a 14-year-old admirer (Balthazar Getty).
Their old acquaintance Pat Garrett (this time played by William Petersen instead of Patrick Wayne) is also with them, though he will soon become sheriff and attempt to track them down before they can escape to Old Mexico.
Unlike the first film, which was more of an ensemble piece, "Young Guns II" attempts to concentrate primarily on the tenuous relationship between Billy and Garrett. There's no depth to this, mind you, but it does make the film more interesting than it might otherwise have been. Unfortunately for fans, it also provides a lot less screen time for Sutherland and Phillips.
Estevez is no Dustin Hoffman, but he pulls off the old-age bit quite well, and as the young Billy he's quite good at displaying the swaggering youthful demeanor that befits this deadeye shot who became a notorious, glamorized outlaw.
How unfortunate then that screenwriter John Fusco and director Geoff Murphy allow the film to settle into a series of vignettes that are alternately amusing and banal, with such ridiculous exploitive touches as the 14-year-old boy losing his virginity (a rehash of a similar moment with Casey Siemaszko in the first film) and the scene that has Jenny Wright, as a prostitute friend of Billy's, riding out of town a la Lady Godiva. (It's also interesting to note that in this male-macho film, the only significant female character is required to remove her clothes.)
We won't mention the Bon Jovi songs or the quick cameo by Jon Bon Jovi himself.
Sumptuously shot, very well-acted and full of potential, "Young Guns II" nonetheless remains a disappointment. And for those of us who would like to see Westerns revived, it is a double disappointment.
(Trivia buffs should note that James Coburn, who played Pat Garrett in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," has a cameo here as a cattle baron who talks this film's Garrett into becoming sheriff.)
"Young Guns II" is rated PG-13 but certainly deserves an R, with considerable violence and the requisite sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.
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