Episode 69: Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory (1990)

Welcome to another Pulling Focus, where one of our co-hosts introduces a film that they feel deserves a bit more love. In this episode, Matt introduces Geoff Murphy’s stylish 1990 Western sequel.

One Letterboxd reviewer stated, “I hate westerns, and I love this movie!” Bizarrely, much like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, this is a western for audiences who perhaps either don’t like westerns, or who have never really given them a try. I personally prefer a western that romanticises and mythologises Billy the Kid. I don’t want to be informed about what really happened. I don’t want Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, I want Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I don’t want anything plain, run-of-the-mill, as it occurred – I want something heightened and extravagant.

Young Guns II is unashamedly a popcorn western, but it’s got moments that resonate, compelling shootouts, blood and guts, cheeky nudity, dramatic conflict, and dances a really entertaining jig when it comes to delivering an entertaining version of a classic tale – and entertaining movies are rarely something I mark down.

Blaze of Glory elegantly reframes its actors and moves the goalposts in terms of ticking the genre’s obligatory boxes. It’s welcoming, easy-breezy, and the style and well-worn elements it adopts are utilised terrifically. It’s a bit postmodern, certainly self-aware, hip, youthful, and above all, fun, and that’s what a lot of traditional westerns forget to be. They can drag. This movie takes all the tropes of your daddy’s west, drags ’em into the ’90s, chucks ’em into whatever the filmmaking equivalent of a SodaStream is, and has its wicked way with them.

In terms of Jon Bon Jovi’s ’87 power ballad, “Wanted Dead or Alive,” it is now my duty to correct a mistake from one of our previous podcasts, in which I incorrectly referenced the track as being part of the Young Guns II soundtrack. Screenwriter, John Fusco, did write the sequel to Young Guns while listening to it though, so I wasn’t entirely wrong. It’s not actually part of this film, but it is key to the backstory of JBJ’s involvement in the second Young Guns picture. He belts out, “I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride. I’m wanted, dead or alive,” clearly referencing motorcycles, not actual horses – although I must mention the 1987 Filmation cartoon, BraveStarr, which featured Thirty/Thirty, the titular hero’s talking, transforming, “techno horse” or Equestroid, as that show would have provided José Chavez y Chavez himself, Lou Diamond Phillips, with the star vehicle of a lifetime, as a Native American galactic marshal, who could call upon “spirit animals,” granting him super-human hearing, strength, and speed. Hollywood, you failed us.

Bon Jovi was openly a fan of the first Young Guns, said so in an interview, then when the sequel came about, Estevez got in touch, and hired him to provide some soundtrack music. JBJ penned and recorded a full LP of material – ten songs in total, for the Blaze of Glory album. Jeff Beck played lead guitar, Little Richard and Elton John were in on the sessions too, with the latter performing on the song, “Dyin’ Ain’t Much of a Livin’.” The lesser known, slightly Springsteeny “Miracle,” and last bit of the end credits number, the easy rocker, “Billy Get Your Guns,” have a second and third, best of the rest vibe, falling a little by the wayside in comparison to the US Billboard number one, “Blaze of Glory,” which earned BJ an Oscar nom, snagged him a Golden Globe, and the whole endeavor kickstarted his somewhat ill-fated acting career, with a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Young Guns II as a dirty prisoner getting spread out like tule rosa. 

I think what may have happened here was Bon Jovi’s ego clicked into high gear and saw this project as a parallel to what Bob Dylan did for Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 revisionist western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack. The modern Dylan he isn’t, but comfortable shoes to seemingly step into, eh? A cool concept, and quite meta in itself – that’s the repetitive, cyclical nature of the business, I suppose.

We discussed Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” on our Prince of Thieves episode – here it was Bon Jovi with the hit single, “Blaze of Glory.” These two soft rock superstars influenced me immeasurably in the years that followed, which saw me mimic my mate Dave, by snapping up Adams’ So Far So Good, and Bon Jovi‘s Cross Road best ofs from the mid ’90s, and along with my trusty, classic Rock Anthems double disc set, and a burgeoning fascination with Queen, began to explore the guitar music that would form the foundation of my musical taste.

“Tell him that you’re bringin’ in Brushy Bill Roberts, alias William Antrim, also known as William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid.”

Brushy Bill, Young Guns II

Often unfairly labelled as a “Teen Beat MTV western,” critics seemed to glance at the tight-trousered Bon Jovi promo, sneer, and then negatively associate the quick-cut music video era with this movie. It’s initially lazy journalism, followed by even lazier, copycat echoes in subsequent publications. Yeah, the movie has slow motion and musical sequences – but so did The Wild Bunch!

Young Guns II has been described as the Bon Jovi to Bob Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, directed by Sam Peckinpah, with Blaze of Glory scene-stealer, James Coburn, and Kris Kristofferson as the respective leads. It’s a snappy analogy, as it’s a poppier, more modern, frankly more derivative, and arguably overproduced film. Despite my Young Guns II nostalgia, I’m not devoid of sense – I’ll always take Dylan over Bon Jovi, but I know which film I return to more often. Cinephiles will all say Peckinpah obliterates Murphy, and it’s impossible to dispute that. Murphy never got anywhere near a film as intellectually affecting as Straw Dogs. However, I believe Young Guns II is far and away Geoff Murphy’s finest work, and a fitting closure to our completely unplanned three-peat nod to the late Kiwi director, following previous mixed bag episodes on Freejack, and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.

“Tonally all over the place” was another dismissive, one-line review of Blaze of Glory. If this is “tonally all over,” then I like it that way. There’s a misconception among critics that if a movie doesn’t just hold down the backbeat on a singular tone, and proficiently play one note throughout, à la The Exorcist, then it’s deemed to be inferior, or illustrate some kind of loss of directorial control, as if the filmmaker is inept because they shirked their responsibilities somehow, or failed to shepherd a pure vision. I enjoy films that dissect genres and step across lines. In terms of comedy, we saw it, and applauded it throughout Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with its giggles coming thick and fast alongside heavy plotlines involving rape and devil worship. Movies can be humorous, and dramatic, and absurd, and scary – all at once.

As we discussed on the episode, the constant undercutting of dramatic beats with humour is extremely clever here, with moments like the “proper burial” with Billy, Pat, and Dave kicking dust over the corpse of a deceased bandit, the portly drunk lady covering for The Kid with her, “What’s the matter? You only like boys?” line, and the masked lynch mob member’s “Uh-oh” utterance, following their accidental murder of Deputy Carlyle. These light, downright funny touches are all effective shifts in tone. I’d sooner a film was a bit daft than drab.

“Hello, Bob! G’bye, Bob! Best dollar eighty I ever spent!”

Billy, Young Guns II

Charlie Sheen as Dick in the original ’88 Young Guns even says to Billy, “You sure as hell ain’t no Robin Hood,” so there’s always been this mythic, legendary aspiration to put Billy the Kid in that light, and I never really felt it came to fruition in the first movie, but in the second, he’s as big as Robin Hood, and Estevez and co. really sell it. Emilio has never been better for me. Alex Cox’s Repo Man, some might say – and the overall cult quality of that film aids their argument, but the mischievous, cheeky Billy Bonney is both firmly in Estevez’s wheelhouse, and extremely different to his real-life persona.

There’s something to be said for the original Young Guns – if nothing else, it bravely dipped its toe in the water, and acted as a trial run for Blaze of Glory. More Sheen wouldn’t’ve gone amiss here, but sadly Dick’s dead. Young Guns II is finessed, more stylised, more commercial and aware of itself and its strengths – a star-driven, soft rock western, reimagined. Young Guns knows what it is by part II; the first film meanders and it’s always looking to find its footing – the odd musical choices, etc. make that clear, but Blaze of Glory is confident, and certain which side its bread is buttered. I think Geoff Murphy should claim some credit for that – he honed it all in far better than Christopher Cain.

“Yoo-hoo! I’ll make ya famous.”

Billy, Young Guns II

At the time of recording our podcast episode, Estevez (billed as writer/director), Christian Slater, and Diamond Phillips, are all seemingly on board another Young Guns sequel, and LDP recently confirmed that Emilio and the original Young Guns/Young Guns II writer, John Fusco, are currently working on the screenplay for Young Guns 3: Alias Billy the Kid, which is slated for a 2022 release.

Personally, I don’t want to explore the Brushy Bill avenue any further. The mystery is the best part. Fans of these kinds of cult films often convince themselves they want a reboot, but if you overexplain matters, these stories can not only lose their power, but also retroactively tarnish the original film, or films. Sometimes, we should just leave a film, or film franchise well alone. Besides, I have absolutely no idea how Young Guns could be revisited with the original cast, as Estevez stated in one interview, “Everyone is dead!”

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