By Ray Sawhill
“Young Guns II” isn’t to be confused with the original “Young Guns,” a mixture of fake cowboy style and celebrity worship. The new picture, the first directed in America by the New Zealander Geoff Murphy, may have more glamorizing flourishes than it needs, but it also has obstreperousness and fervor. Within the limits of the commercial Western, it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking.
The movie takes another look at the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In this version, Billy’s ego is swelling even as his fortunes wane; he has begun to believe in his legend. But the big landowners want to crush Billy and his gang. They hire Billy’s old comrade in arms Pat Garrett (William Petersen) to track him down.
The actors — including Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips and Kiefer Sutherland from the original film’s cast — bring wit and gravity to their roles. John Fusco’s script conveys something of the historical Billy — a small man who was a charismatic sociopath.
But it’s the director’s work that puts the movie across. Murphy refreshes the Western by channeling back into it the intensity that filmmakers set loose in the ’60s and ’70s. Played out against vast, totemic landscapes, “Young Guns II” is the first Western in years to have the ritualistic quality of the classics of the genre. (It isn’t a surprise to learn that Murphy’s wife is a Maori.)
A former trumpet player who spent years touring with a rock band, Murphy, now 51, has a musician’s love of irreverence and shifts in tempo and mood. It wasn’t until 1980 that he made his first feature film, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” a lickety-split road movie that was as popular in New Zealand as “E.T.” His second film, “Utu,” about colonial rule in New Zealand, was a great hip epic. (It’s available on videocassette.) In it, Murphy fused elements of costume drama, Westerns, and samurai films: “In New Zealand we borrow genres and try to put our experience into them, and hope our own genres will develop over time.”
“Geoff’s a real mad-conductor type,” Fusco says. “He’d stay up all night working out the next day’s shooting in detailed computer drawings and plans, pass them out, then fall asleep until the assistant director would tell him it was time to roll. Then he’d shake himself, throw himself into the work and make it look effortless.”
Murphy says he’s still suffering from culture shock. “In New Zealand the movies are something you might go to on Saturday night. Here, the average 15-year-old has seen every movie. I’ve never experienced that level of fierceness about films.” A fan of Westerns, he says that “television did a lot of harm. Also, Sergio Leone had an effect. I love his films, but he did to the Western what Einstein did to physics — he finished the book. And he did it with such panache that he dehumanized it. If the Western wants to revive, it has to give the audience a chance to feel something.”
- Some of the people involved recall the making of “Young Guns II.”
- Jenny Wright, who played a spunky madame in the movie, is an interesting case. After quite a career in the ’80s, she vanished in the early ’90s and has only recently begun making public appearances again. Here’s a website devoted to her.
- Buy a copy of Geoff Murphy’s New Zealand epic “Utu.” It’s a great, and much-underknown, movie.
- A semi-recent interview with Geoff Murphy.
- Another one.
©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.