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Film / Young Guns

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Young Guns is a 1988 Western action film directed by Christopher Cain and featuring an All-Star Cast in a dramatized retelling of the adventures of Billy the Kid during the Lincoln County War, which took place in New Mexico in 1877–78.

William "Billy the Kid" Bonney (Emilio Estevez) is a young man who's hired by Lincoln County, New Mexico cattle rancher John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) to protect his property as one of his "Regulators." After a disagreement with a fellow rancher named Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance) leads to Tunstall's death, Billy and several other men working at the farm – including Richard Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Gordon "Doc" Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Jose Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), "Dirty" Steve Stephens (Dermot Mulroney) and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko) – convince Tunstall's friend and lawyer Alex McSween (Terry O'Quinn) to deputize them and let them get revenge on one of Murphy's men.

The newfound group of deputies handle the situation by shooting Murphy's man and a group of his men without arresting them. What follows is a collision course as the six men run afoul of the local law enforcement, Murphy himself and the army, while the populace grows to respect and idolize their exploits. Many of the newfound outlaws die along the way as they try to evade the authorities and carve out an existence for themselves.

The film proved popular enough to warrant a sequel, Young Guns II, which was released in 1990. A third film with Estevez, Sutherland, and rest of the cast is currently under production.

Though the films played very fast and loose with a lot of the details of the Lincoln County War and Billy's role in it, they are nonetheless held up as one of the better retellings in modern times.

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Actually, I Am Him: A bounty hunter is bragging to a woman about how he is going to kill Billy. It just so happens that Billy is in the same saloon, and questions the bounty hunter about how he's going to kill the outlaw when he finds him. Not knowing who he is talking to, the bounty hunter gives Billy his gun when asked to see it, and Billy removes all of the bullets before returning it. Billy then asks the bounty hunter for a description of himself, and upon looking in a mirror, exclaims that he has found himself. Amazingly, despite Billy admitting who he was to the bounty hunter's face, said bounty hunter refuses to believe that Billy the Kid, is Billy the Kid, until he is shot.
  • Age Lift: Tunstall is depicted as an older British gent (Terence Stamp in this version), when in fact, he was 24 when ambushed and killed. He was 4 years older than William Bonney. Likewise, Lawrence Murphy, who was played by 69-year old actor Jack Palance, was only 47 in real life during the events of the movie.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • In the opening sequence, at least two characters are seen brandishing Smith and Wesson Model 1899 double action revolvers. That model of revolver wouldn't be made for another 21 years after the events shown in the film.
    • In one scene Murphy and his gang sing the sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling". This film takes place in 1878, however that song wasn't written until 1912.
  • Artistic License – History: Has its own subpage.
  • Badass Crew: The Regulators.
  • Badass Longcoat: Many characters wear one, of the Old West "Duster" variety.
  • Badass Native: Jose Chavez qualifies. He is a tough fighter, with ranger skills like stealth. Chavez's mother was Navajo.
  • Band of Brothers: Though the group itself uses the term "pals" to mean the same thing.
    William Bonney: "If you got three or four good pals, why, then you got yourself a tribe. Ain't nothin' stronger than that."
  • Bathtub Scene: Billy dictates a letter to the governor while taking a bath.
  • Battle Cry: "Regulators!" Notably, Chavez yells it when he arrives with the additional horses at the end of the final shootout.
  • Benevolent Boss: John Tunstall is quite fatherly to his Regulators, and is teaching the less-educated ones to read.
  • Berserk Button: Subverted. Billy looks for almost any excuse to kill people.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Regulators succeeded in avenging John Tunstall and taking down Murphy's gang, but half of the main characters were killed in the process. Dick was gunned downed in the first half of the film and Dirty Steve and Charlie were killed during the final battle. As for the surviving members, Chavez went on to work on a farm in California and Doc took Yen Sun to New York and married her. Billy continued to be an outlaw until he was shot and killed by lawman Pat Garrett. Billy was buried next to Charlie at Fort Sumner. Later on, a stranger went up to Billy's grave late in the night and carved the word "PALS" on Billy's headstone.
  • Bloodless Carnage: When Alex is shot and killed there are no squib marks on him. Apparently the producers felt the film was getting too bloody and they feared the movie would get an X rating.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Billy kills Murphy at the end.
    • Another one during the siege of the McSween house, apparently just to Troll the attackers:
  • Bounty Hunter: An exceptionally badass and old one named Buckshot Roberts takes on Billy the Kid's entire gang by himself.
    Dick Brewer: We've got a warrant for you, old man.
    Buckshot Roberts: I ain't got no business with that war no more, peckerhead son of a bitch. I'm on my own. I've come to pick up the 150 dollars Sheriff Brady has put out for the Kid. The rest of you little shits're only worth about 110, but I'll take it.
    Doc: What a sweet disposition.
    Buckshot Roberts: All right, let's dance. (starts shooting)
  • The Cameo:
    • Tom Cruise, who was visiting some friends on the set, has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance as a mustachioed gunman in the climax.
    • Country musician Randy Travis had an uncredited cameo as the gatling gun operator stationed in front of McSween's farm.
  • Camping a Crapper: Inverted when Buckshot Roberts uses an outhouse as cover and shoots Richard dead from there. He's ventilated shortly thereafter.
  • Casting Gag: Patrick Wayne plays Pat Garrett. His father, John Wayne, starred in Chisum, which was also about the Lincoln County Wars of 1878 and featured Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
  • Catchphrase: "Yoohoo! I'll make you famous..."
  • Chinese Launderer: Yen Sun is the daughter of a Chinese launderer.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Charlie goes through one long case of this throughout the film, having realized that the group's actions will inevitably lead to their messy deaths. By the time they're trapped at the McSween farm, he eventually realizes the futility of the situation and decides to act recklessly to save his friends.
  • Dead Star Walking: Charlie Sheen's character, Richard "Dick" Brewer, shows up just long enough to establish friction with Billy before being ruthlessly gunned down by an assassin soon after the group's formation.
  • Death by Adaptation: While several of the outlaws who participated in the Lincoln County War survived and went on to live for many more years, they are killed off in the films to provide narrative weight. In real life, Charlie Bowdre died during the Stinking Springs shootout, but he dies in the first film in the final shootout at the McSween farm.
  • Death by Cameo: Tom Cruise appears in an uncredited role as one of Murphy's men who's shot by Charlie as he's running down the outdoor stairs during the final shootout.
  • Devious Daggers: Chavez, who wields a dagger which he throws at enemies and uses their bodies to wipe the blood off.
  • Decoy Protagonist: After being established as the moral voice of the group, the film has Dick Brewer ultimately appear long enough to create the Regulators but dies after an assassin ambushes him. He doesn't even live long enough to see the group become famous.
  • Fake Shemp: In the scene where the men are going through the Indian Village (Spirit World), Doc is shown in the front of the group with a cover on his face, but it is not Kiefer Sutherland. He left that morning before the scene was shot, due to the birth of his child.
  • Formula with a Twist: The Western had been dead for over two decades at this point. This movie brought it back, but with a notorious outlaw as the main protagonist and an Ensemble Cast of teen stars as its’ leads in an attempt to make the Western “cool.” The film was a critical and financial success.
  • Gilligan Cut: Used when Doc is briefly back in Lincoln to visit Yen Sun while the rest of the pals are elsewhere and discussing whether Doc is really coming back, as he's been gone a long time.
    Billy: He'll come back. Doc likes me.
    Doc: I can't stand him.
  • Great Escape: One thing Billy was great at: breaking out of jail or getting out of death traps.
  • Guns Akimbo: During the final shootout at McSween's farm, Billy duel-wields revolvers and fires them at the same time after jumping out from the chest.
  • The Gunslinger: Billy, though notable for using treachery rather than a fast draw to get the drop on opponents.
  • Hidden Depths: Billy shows he is quite adept at reading current events. Something the other Regulators were implied to be taught how to do so.
  • Historical Domain Character: Much of the cast.
  • Historical In-Joke: Billy reads a report that claims he is a lefty, and replies, "I ain't left-handed." This is a reference to various media wrongly claiming that he was left-handed based on a tintype photograph of him. Tintypes produce a reversed image, making Billy look like he used his left hand to shoot. The rumor was so persistent that a 1958 movie about him was titled "The Left Handed Gun".
  • Historical Relationship Overhaul: The subplot regarding Doc Spurlock's budding romance with Yen Sun, a Chinese immigrant who was forcibly taken as Murphy's mistress and later falls in love with Doc (risking her life to stay with him during the ending siege) is completely fabricated for the film, though the situation could be seen as an apocryphal view of the (very real) prostitution of young Chinese girls in the era the film takes place. In real life, Doc was married to a Hispanic woman, Maria (Antonia) Herrera, before the war started, and there is no known historical evidence that Murphy (who, as noted above, was dying of cancer at the time the film takes place) ever had a mistress working for him.
  • I Have a Family: Charley panics during the final shoot-out:
    Charley: Hey, Billy. I've got to get out of here. I've got a wife. She's this little Mexican gal. Please, Billy.
    Billy: Charley, if you don't stand up and start whooping some ass, you ain't ever gonna see her again.
  • I Like Those Odds: When the US Cavalry shows up during the climax.
    Doc: Billy, we're good, but this is getting ridiculous.
    Billy: I like these odds...
  • Intoxication Ensues: The Regulators go on a peyote trip and have various states of intoxicated from "serene clarity" to "tripping balls."
  • The Irish Mob: A western variation of it: Murphy's organization - which monopolized a lot of businesses and ranching throughout Lincoln County - is pretty much made up of gangsters in dusters and cowboy boots. When Brit Tunstall shows up looking to compete in the markets, Irishman Murphy doesn't take it very well...
    • Though Billy's real name and alias both indicate that he's Irish, too.
  • It's Personal: Murphy is shown to be a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to build his Cattle Empire, but being an Irishman he seems particularly hateful towards the Englishman Tunstall coming into his territory to compete with him.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Billy the Kid does this to a bounty hunter. Pretending to be awestruck by the bounty hunter's boasts, he asks if he can touch the gun with which the hunter plans to kill Billy the Kid. The bounty hunter hands it to him, and Billy secretly unloads it before handing it back. Billy then reveals his true identity. The bounty hunter tries firing several times with the empty gun before Billy shoots him down.
  • Large Ham: A good amount of scenery chewing takes place by Estevez, but Palance as mob boss Murphy outclasses even that.
  • Made a Slave: Yen Sun becomes this to Lawrence Murphy when reputetly her mother (a washerwoman) ruined his shirt.
  • Mutual Kill: Charlie and John Kinney kill each other during the final shoot-out.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Doc has several moments of self-reflection where he laments what's happened, especially after the Regulators kill a turncoat and the man they were sent to arrest, and Doc looks on in shock at the lifeless corpses in the area. This motivates his eventual decision to reform for a time and become a teacher.
  • Noble Bigot: Dirty Steve constantly harasses Chavez calling him a greaser and using Navaho as an insult, but in the final shootout, he rides back to save Chavez getting himself killed instead.
  • Noble Savage: Chavez, who's referred to as "the Indian" a few times, is portrayed as "the wise one" of the bunch and acts as a de facto shaman during the peyote sequence, bordering on Magical Native American.
  • Pink Mist: Unlike the usual modest blood-splats found in Westerns, Doc flinches when a huge splash of gore hits his hat from about ten feet away when Billy shoots McClusky in the head.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Murphy keeps Yen Sun, a teenage Chinese girl, as a Sex Slave, having taken her as "payment" when her family's laundry ruined one of his shirts.
  • Posse: Billy and the other "Regulators" are deputized as a posse through political influence, but quickly lose that status when they abuse their power. The sequel has a legitimate posse formed by Sheriff Pat Garrett to pursue Billy's gang.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: When Billy shoots Murphy, we get a twenty-second slow-mo of him flailing then falling, with a tiny bullet hole precisely in the center of his forehead with just a trickle of blood coming from it.
  • Price on Their Head: Buckshot Roberts comes to collect the $150 bounty on Billy's head and informs the others that they're only worth $110. Billy's bounty later raises to $200.
  • Psycho for Hire: Billy is depicted as a Berserk Button prone hardcore killer. One who makes an already dangerous situation much-much worse by constantly escalating the violence.
  • Scenery Porn: Lots of beautiful shots of the New Mexico desert with the snow capped Rockies in the background.
  • Screaming Warrior: Subverted. When the outlaws are seemingly cornered, Chavez appears to launch his horse at a cliff with a battle cry. Inspired by his courage, the other outlaws follow and to everyone's surprise, they make it unscathed. When one of the other outlaws tells Chavez that was awesome and asks what the battle cry means in his native language, Chavez gives him a wry look and says, "Stop!"
  • Small Role, Big Impact: For a one-scene character, Buckshot Roberts gets one of the best speeches in the film, single-handedly holds off the entire group and kills Brewer. Even when the group fires several rounds into the outhouse he's hiding in, they are forced to run and can't confirm if he actually died, leaving his fate ambiguous.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Billy consistently behaves as one. He is excited every time there is bloodshed, and kills perhaps more people than any of his companions, often ignoring the original plan they agreed on just so he can kill more opponents. He pretty much single-handedly screws up Henry Hill's arrest by shooting him point-blank instead of arresting him, and leads to six more deaths on the spot, and makes the Regulators outlaws.
    Billy: By the way, you're under arrest! (Chuckle)
    • He begins to change in the sequel after Tommy dies.
  • Son of a Whore: According to Casey Siemaszko, the scene where Charley visits the prostitute was longer and would have ended with him revealing to the others that she is in fact his mother.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Dick gets fairly unceremoniously killed midway through the film despite being the leader of the group to that point and Charlie Sheen being the biggest star in the film at that time. However it clears the way for Billy to become the undisputed leader of the Regulators.
  • Taking You with Me: During the final shootout, Charlie takes out Kinney with his dying breath before collapsing dead on the ground.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Murphy and his men use a gatling gun to unload more than 30 rounds into Alex McSween, even though the gang has already escaped and the character has made no violent action towards them.
  • Undying Loyalty: The Regulators' loyalty to Tunstall motivates their initial revenge ride. The survivors later develop this towards eachother.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Although wildly embellishing a lot of the details of the Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid's part in it, both films were relatively better at sticking to the facts than a lot of earlier re-tellings.
  • Vigilante Militia: After John Tunstill is murdered, the Regulators quickly devolve into this, as they end up slaughtering basically anyone even suspected of being involved in the crime.
  • Warrior Poet: Doc is a gunslinger who writes poetry in his spare time, even if most of it isn't his own work.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • While the real-life Buckshot Roberts died the day after killing Dick Brewer (due to sustained injuries), the film version is left in ambiguous circumstances. The Regulators are forced to retreat after Brewer dies, and can't check to see if Roberts is dead inside the outhouse he's hiding in because Murphy's posse are already on their way and they don't want to risk more casualties.
    • Yen Sun disappears between the first and second films after riding off with Doc, and her whereabouts are never explained. Though Doc does mention that he has a wife and son in II, he never refers to her by name and her reaction to his death at Stinking Springs is never shown.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film ends with a voiceover from Doc telling us that Susan caused a congressional investigation into the Lincoln County War, Chavez took work at a farm in California, Doc moved east to New York and married Yen Sun and Billy continued to ride until he was found and shot dead by Pat Garrett. This was invalidated by the sequel.
  • Young Gun: Billy is the personification of this trope.