No, this isn’t a remake/reboot of Charlie Chaplin’s acclaimed film (thank God!). It’s yet another version of notorious outlaw and killer Billy the Kid and all his reported antics in the wild, wild West. Although there have been many versions of Billy, this one comes at it from a unique angle.
What’s that old saying–“never meet your heroes”? Well, you can ask tween Rio Cutler (Jake Schur) all about that. Y’see, he and his older sister Sara (Leila George–daughter of the director) have just run away from their abusive and psychotic uncle Grant (Chris Pratt in an extended cameo) because, well, Rio killed his abusive father. This is NOT a well family, folks. Anyway, on the run, Rio and Sara run smack-dab into an equally on the run Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and his gang. Rio is star-struck by meeting his hero, but it’s short lived as they’re all captured by dogged Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke).
Hell-bent on taking these outlaws to Lincoln County for a proper hangin’, Pat must negotiate through a gauntlet of trouble first as another lawman (director Vincent D’Onofrio) wants Billy for his own. But escaping that hornet’s nest is just the beginning as they get to Lincoln County; Billy is placed in iron shackles and Rio and Sara get ambushed by that crazy uncle of theirs. After Sara is kidnapped, Rio does the unthinkable: he forges an alliance with the most dangerous criminal alive to get his sister back. Billy, unsure if this kid is a friend or not, helps him… just as long as the kid upholds his bargain.
Rio, his moral compass put to the test, grows up way too fast as the third act will decide choices in his life that will shape his adulthood. The conclusion is both shocking and bittersweet as the recent wave of Westerns (The Sisters Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) have been. Andrew Latham (The Glass Castle) took the classic Billy the Kid tale and spins it beautifully as this gritty, raw story is told through the POV of the kid, Rio. Smart, fresh, and with clever dialogue, the characters are fully fleshed out and have a soul to them. Honestly, it’s refreshing to see a well-crafted film nowadays with so many rom-com’s, superhero, and thrillers out there that just churn out a product willy-nilly.
Director/actor D’Onofrio (in his directorial debut) shows a deft hand at directing and, after years in front of the camera, has obviously picked up some ideas as this movie, making it look like he’s been doing this for years. Maybe because he’s got his co-stars, Pratt & Hawke, from the recent The Magnificent Seven remake, with him on the set? And speaking of which, Hawke is exceptional as the worn-out Pat Garrett, just wanting to see Billy brought to justice… or die. DeHaan is probably the best Billy I’ve ever seen. Not as pretentious or over-the-top looney as Estevez in Young Guns, DeHaan plays it real and dirty; the opening shot of him mirrors the authentic 1879 photo of the Kid. Eerie and perfect.
Jake Shur, making his feature debut here, is excellent, as is Leila George (also a newbie). Shur sure shows that, just because you’ve never done a film before, doesn’t mean you can’t do a great job. Another terrific thing I must point out is Chris Pratt. Nearly unrecognizable with a thick beard, a truly frightening demeanor, and only being on camera for a few minutes, he gives a chilling, unhinged monologue about bluebirds that is worth the price of admission alone. Wow! A terrific film that shouldn’t be missed.
“I’ll make ya famous!” says the Kid, as he points his six-shooter at someone and threatens to kill them. A Hollywood retelling of Billy the Kid, using a largely millennial cast, this movie shot to #1 at the box office and spawned a sequel. Even though it was pretty much fictionalized, it was none-the-less quirky and fun.
Going from a backstory, we see cattle rancher and proud Englishman, John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) being a Fagin to a bunch of wayward young men who run his ranch. There’s Doc Scurlock (Keifer Sutherland), who wants to woo a Chinese girl (Alice Carter) in town, hothead Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), “Dirty” Steve Stephens (Dermot Mulroney), Mexican/Indian Jose Chavez Y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), and simpleton Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko). Joining their group is an impetuous loud-mouth braggart named Billy (Emilio Estevez) who immediately clashes heads with everybody.
Trouble arises when a fellow rancher, Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance) has Tunstall murdered, leaving the guys all alone. Consulting their lawyer friend, Alexander McSween (Terry O’Quinn), they all get deputized and, calling themselves “Regulators”, Billy quickly takes charge, challenging Dick’s authority as leader. Forgetting “justice”, Billy goes for cold-blooded revenge against Murphy and anyone responsible for killing Tunstall. Naturally, this makes the gang all wanted men and subject to crazy bounty hunters (Brian Keith) and the U. S. Army. Fleeing to Mexico, Billy is warned by Pat Garrett (Patrick Wayne) of an ambush and they all go back home, which turns out to be a huge mistake.
Murphy’s men surround a house, trapping the Regulators, and a shootout begins. The Army comes in and torches the house, but while the house is ablaze, Billy and the others come up with a daring and completely insane escape plan. Needless to say, his plan works (more or less) and Billy manages to escape, while the others are less than fortunate. Screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns 2, The Babe) knew his target audience and wrote a great screenplay, spinning a modern twist on a old West setting. This isn’t your grandpa’s old John Wayne western, but a hipper, fresher Western that spoke to a younger generation.
And you can thank director Christopher Cain (The Next Karate Kid) for that sense of fun and dark humor that made this film so accessible. But, then again, with a cast like Estevez, his IRL brother Sheen, Phillips, Sutherland, O’Quinn, Stamp, Palance, Wayne, and the others, you simply couldn’t go wrong. Estevez, with his impish grin, Joker-ish laugh, and proclivity to kill anyone for any reason, sold this movie. Even the second film, Young Guns 2, was a rarity in film… a sequel that didn’t suck!