Ask anyone to name some great movie sequels, and you’ll likely get the usual list of universally praised classics spit back at you — The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, Aliens. You know, the usual bunch. But those movies all had the luxury of building off a preceding film that was a masterpiece in its own right. A trickier assignment is making a successful sequel to a movie that wasn’t firing on all cylinders to begin with, even if market forces turned it into a box-office hit. Which is why Young Guns II, the 1990 Western sequel starring Emilio Estevez in his second go-round as renowned outlaw Billy the Kid, is a more impressive film than almost anyone gives it credit for.
After all, it’s not like the first Young Guns is some kind of underappreciated triumph due for a critical revaluation. Released in 1988, that movie feels less like a film with dramatic purpose and more like a reason to port over a bunch of hot, young “Brat Pack” and “Brat Pack”-adjacent stars, including Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and Lou Diamond Phillips, into a Western setting just for the novelty of it. Scored to a guitar-and-synth-heavy rock soundtrack, the film remains, at most, an interesting curio of its time and is largely dismissed when discussing worthwhile Westerns from that era. Still, it was a hit, grossing $56 million on an $11 million budget, so two years later, Estevez and the gang jumped back into the saddle for Young Guns II — a movie that would certainly just attempt to mimic the first movie and offer nothing more than diminishing returns, right? Not so fast, pardner. As it turns out, Young Guns II, which kept the same screenwriter from the first movie (John Fusco) but enlisted a new director (Geoff Murphy), is a marked improvement over the original film. It features a deeper, more impressive cast, touches on some interesting themes, and trades in that rock soundtrack for a sweeping Alan Silvestri score that might be the composer’s most underrated. Whereas the first Young Guns feels like a cast of newly minted movie stars playing “dress up,” Young Guns II feels like an honest-to-god Western that’s worth the time of anyone who’s a fan of the genre.
The ‘Young Guns’ Cast Gets Upgraded
Let’s start with that cast. Young Guns II brings back Estevez, Sutherland, and Phillips from the first film. Sheen ended up six feet under in that movie, as did characters played by Dermot Mulroney and Casey Siemaszko. So, in one of cinema’s most impressive upgrades, they get replaced in the sequel by new characters played by Christian Slater and Alan Ruck. Sure, Sheen was a much bigger star at the time, but Slater and Ruck are infinitely more interesting actors. Slater, in particular, is having a blast here, bringing his Heathers-era swagger to the screen as his “Arkansas” Dave Rudabaugh playfully battles Billy for control of their gang. Not content with just adding a few new young actors to the cast, Young Guns II also blows out its supporting cast with a who’s who of character actors. The most notable is William Petersen, taking over the beefed-up role of Pat Garrett, who briefly appeared in the first movie but was played by John Wayne‘s son, Patrick. And though they don’t get roles as major as Petersen’s, the film also finds spots for James Coburn (as fiery in his single scene as you’d hope), Bradley Whitford, Robert Knepper, Scott Wilson, a young Viggo Mortensen, and an even younger Balthazar Getty. This is a well-cast movie, and the familiar faces in the smaller roles give this version of the Wild West a more mythic feel.
The story picks up shortly after the resolution of the Lincoln County War that was the focal point of first movie, with Billy, Pat, and Dave headlining a new gang of thieves and murderers. The governor of New Mexico offers Billy a pardon in exchange for him testifying against a larger group of outlaws, but the deal goes south and Billy is arrested and scheduled to be hanged. He manages to escape, and then — in a fun bit of “let’s get the band back together” sequencing — proceeds to rescue Doc (Sutherland) and Chavez (Phillips), who have also been arrested (epilogue from the first film be damned). Billy convinces the gang to take the secretive “Mexican Blackbird Trail” to Mexico, but Pat decides head off on his own, as he has his sights set on a life of respectability. Originally, that meant opening his own saloon, but when the government offers Pat a sheriff’s badge to track down Billy and kill him, Pat decides to turn against his old friend, turning the second half of the film into an elaborate chase through New Mexico.
The relationship between Billy and Pat is the film’s most dynamic, and Petersen, still a decade away from CSI but just a few years after lighting up movie screens in To Live and Die in L.A. and Manhunter, brings a hefty dose of gravitas to a film that was going to need it. His calm practicality offers a nice contrast to Estevez, who’s still all wild-eyed and cackling as Billy. (To be clear, Estevez is delightful here. You can practically see his eyes sparkle when, while standing in front of a governor who’s offering to make him a free man, Billy looks right past him to ask about acquiring a piece of a delicious-looking cake that’s sitting on a nearby table.) Once Pat turns on the Kid, the film moves past the limited scope of the first film to become a tale about two friends of different dispositions torn apart by ambition.
‘Young Guns II’s Darker Themes
And the story grows even more tragic from there, as it’s eventually revealed that Mexican Blackbird Trail isn’t a thing that actually exists. Billy has had his gang running in circles as he finds himself unable to either part with his friends or leave the country that made him famous. He craves the notoriety, and he loves playing the game — even if it’s going to result in getting himself and everyone who trusts him killed. Young Guns II is the story about a man with nowhere else to go other than straight into oblivion, and he tricks all of his friends into going there with him. Sure, it’s all sold in a slick package, complete with a Jon Bon Jovi hit playing over the end credits, but it makes for a darker and more compelling ride than viewers might anticipate.
How much darker? Well, both Doc and Chavez die fairly horribly, as does Getty’s character, a Billy the Kid idolizer who is barely even a teenager. One person who seems to avoid meeting his maker is Billy himself. The historical record shows that Pat killed Billy at Fort Sumner in 1881, but the film leaves that outcome open to interpretation. There are also a pair of book-ending scenes that feature Estevez in old-age make-up playing “Brushy” Bill Roberts, a man who, in the 1950s, claimed to be a still-very-much-alive Billy the Kid, a notion the film seems the support when you consider that Estevez-as-Roberts also narrates the film. So there’s definitely some wiggle room here, which is why Estevez has recently talked up the possibility of making a Young Guns III. That may not seem like a movie we really need, but, then again, Young Guns II wasn’t a movie we much needed either. And, against the odds, it turned out to be a better entry into the Western canon than anyone likely could have imagined.