When I was growing up, I just didn't "get" westerns. All those grainy John Wayne cowboys and Indians flicks never grabbed me, and the slower-paced Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns tried my pubescent patience. In 1988, when I was 12, Young Guns was released. I suddenly liked westerns.
Despite its "R" rating, Young Guns was clearly a rock n' roll western; it was meant to appeal to teenagers. Not just the boys, either. The six leads were all eye candy to varying degrees, with Kiefer Sutherland being probably the most drool-worthy at the time.
I loved this movie. It was violent, it was cool, it had catchphrases ("Yoo-hoo! I'll make ya famous"). Sure, it was a bit over-the-top, but so was the ending of The Wild Bunch, and that's considered a classic. It also had one of the more shocking early death scenes of any film I can remember, killing off biggest-star-at-the-time Charley Sheen's character barely halfway through the film.
The thing is, I grew out of a lot of films that I loved as a teenager, or at least I saw the silliness in them as I got older. Not so for Young Guns and Young Guns II. I still love them in exactly the same way I did in my adolescence.
The films are ostensibly about Billy the Kid, but what's really appealing about them is the simplicity of their message: "Pals." It's about a group of guys who stick together no matter what, led by Emilio Estevez in his career-defining performance as William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid). Billy sometimes wields the group's bond like a club as he pressures them to act in an increasingly reckless manner, but he is a fiercely loyal friend at his core.
The sequel is better than it has any right to be, taking the remaining "regulators," now on the run for their lives, and introducing William Petersen as Billy's eventual murderer Pat Garrett, who betrays his former friend. Did Pat Garrett really run with The Kid's gang before he took the money to hunt him down? I don't know, and I don't care. The Young Guns movies should not be seen as Billy the Kid biopics. The relationship in the film is much more interesting that way, so it's fine by me. Sometimes I think I even like Young Guns 2 more than the original.
Young Guns runs at 40% on the tomatometer, with Young Guns II at 38%. That's about what I'd expect. Here's the thing, though: I've never met anyone who disliked these movies. Sure, they're not high art, but they are incredibly fun. I'm willing to bet they turned plenty of kids from my generation on to westerns as well.
Nolanometer Final Grades:
Young Guns: B+
Young Guns II: B+
This song remains my favorite "written explicitly for the movie" song of all time.