35 Years Later, Young Guns Blazes Onto 4K Disc

Photo: 20th Century Studios.

Having turned 35 years old this year, Young Guns is a good deal older than any of its featured stars were at the time of its 1988 release. In fact, that was the whole pitch that took this modest little $11 million Western to a surprising box office success. Released at a time when the Western genre was in its death throes, Young Guns‘ casting made for a good part of its appeal and was the center of its publicity; even its title speaks only to the cast’s youth. Twentysomethings Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, and Casey Siemaszko comprised the primary cast, and the film’s posters all depicted them posing together. “A Brat Pack Western,” some called it, not a little dismissively, but Young Guns was at its core actually a perfectly respectable Billy the Kid story, and it’s been given new life once again with a new  4K UHD by Lionsgate in a special edition Steelbook.

While the Western genre in its traditional iteration was on the outs at the box office since the mid-1960s, the 1980s saw all kinds of attempts to revisit and revitalize the genre, ones that would continue through the following decade. At the time, Young Guns was seen really only as an attempt to infuse some new blood into the moribund genre by making it more of what director Christopher Cain called “a biker movie on wheels.” Viewers tended to associate Westerns with the old John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods of yesteryear and not the up-and-coming starts of the day. But the film’s primary conceit turned out to be more than a simple advertising trick, as the story it told—of Billy the Kid and his contemporaries’ revenge campaign during the 1877-78 Lincoln County War in New Mexico—was one of youthful camaraderie and coming of age.

The film’s title and marketing focus on the ensemble cast, but Emilio Estevez is a delightfully cruel, witty, charismatic, and loyal Billy the Kid. (There was for years only one authenticated photograph of the actual gunslinger, but based on it you could make a case for at least a little resemblance between the two.) His is a historical personage, of course, played on film dozens of times: an orphaned boy who was known to have killed 21 men by the time of his own death at age 21. Nearly since the inception of the cinema and the birth of the Western genre, filmmakers have been fascinated by his legend. In 1911, D.W. Griffith directed a short about him (The Adventures of Billy), and nearly every decade saw further iterations, many of them excellent. There was King Vidor’s 1930 Billy the Kid, an early widescreen sound film; Roy Rogers in a dual-role Billy the Kid Returns in 1938; a popular Poverty Row serial in the 1940s; Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw in 1943; Paul Newman in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun in 1959; a trio of films in the early 1970s (Chisum, Dirty Little Billy, and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid); and even after Young Guns, more Billy the Kid films right up to 2019’s The Kid and 2021’s Old Henry. That’s not even counting the overtly ahistorical fare like Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1966) or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

Of all of those and some excellent film, Young Guns surprisingly enjoys a reputation as one of the more historically accurate Billy the Kid films. That reputation rests primarily on the film’s attention to period detail and its script, focusing on Billy’s time as one of English cattleman John Tunstall’s “Regulators” who clash with rival rancher Lawrence Murphy. The genesis of the film came from writer John Fusco’s seeing the one extant photograph of Henry McCarty aka William H. Bonney aka Billy the Kid, whom he described as “a ferret in a derby.” His excellent script makes cocksure, charismatic Billy, a newcomer to the group, one among equals who earns their leadership by virtue of his skill with a gun. And for most of the film’s runtime, Cain presents a film that looks and feels like a traditional Western except for its focus on the cast’s youth and camaraderie—a welcome novelty in a genre that had come to feel for a long time like it had one boot in a dusty grave.

The film worked at the box office (to the tune of $56 million, over five times its budget) and makes still for an enjoyable watch today, especially on the Lionsgate’s 4K. There’s an attempt to introduce a bit of rock and roll to the proceedings, not too unlike Ennio Morricone had done decades before with the electric guitar on the score for A Fistful of Dollars, not to mention plenty of synthesizer. And it’s hard not to notice that Cain’s version of the old West did not lack for hair product: Lou Diamond Phillips’ character sports the most resplendent, luxuriantly-conditioned mane ever seen in the genre. It should get its own billing as a separate character. The film’s ending took just enough liberties to allow for Billy’s and the surviving cast members to return two years later, along with Christian Slater and James Coburn, to the tune of a Jon Bon Jovi soundtrack, for Young Guns II. No one will list Young Guns among the classics of this venerable genre, but it’s a rousing enough entry in the Western canon and one deserving of some special treatment.

Poster of Young Guns featuring its starts Eilia Esttevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Casaey Seimaskzko, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Dermot Mulroney.

Lionsgate’s Young Guns is the film’s first North American release on digital or Blu-ray and appears here in 4K with a brand-new transfer featuring Dolby Vision HDR and a new Dolby Atmos audio mix as well the original 2.0 stereo original theatrical mix. While the 4K is not as razor-sharp as some releases from the 1980s, it’s certainly an improvement on any prior version and a welcome remaster of a film that deserves some credit for revitalizing the genre with both a youthful verve and an historical veracity for which it gets too little credit.


Thankfully, and unlike some studio product that skimps on extras, Lionsgate delivers enough special features here to provide some excellent insight into Young Guns‘ production and reception. There’s a full commentary track and two excellent featurettes to round out the ensemble.

Audio Commentary with actors Dermot Mulroney, Lou Diamond Phillips and Casey Siemaszko. Notable here for their absence are the members of the cast with the most cultural cachet: Estevez, Sheen, and Sutherland. In particular, Estevez’ role in the film is such an integral part of its success his perspectives are sorely missed. One wonders if Sheen, after his much-publicized ballyhoos in 2011, would have had anything of insight to add. Also surprisingly absent are director Christopher Cain and writer John Fusco, who both participated in interviews for the making-of featurette. What Mulroney, Phillips, and Siemaszko provide is a hundred minutes’ worth of giggles, reminiscences, and anecdotes from the shoot, including a few cracks about Estevez’s lifts and some references to scenes that never made the final cut. Those who prefer a bit more content or insight to their commentary tracks will find little to satisfy themselves here; fans of the film will be pleased to hear a bit more about its production from some of its principals.

How the West Was Wild: Making Young Guns. This newly-produced 36-minute featurette includes new interviews with Fusco, Cain, Phillips, Mulroney, and Siemaszko. It’s a wide-ranging treat, covering the film’s origins and casting (Cain and Fusco hoped to cast Sean Penn as Billy, but encountered a problem: the actor was serving time in jail). It wasn’t easy selling the film, either. When Cain told one producer he was making a “biker movie on horses,” he was met with an unambiguous rejection: “Get the f*ck outta here!” he was told. The interviews are cut with some enjoyable screen-test footage of Estevez, Sheen, and the others; though after the Rust fiasco, it’s hard not to wince when you see an actor hold a pistol and fire at a camera.

Billy the Kid: The True Story. This 30-minute mini-doc has been around for some time, but it’s a useful complement to Young Guns, telling what is—and what is not—known about the character history came to know as Billy the Kid. This handsomely-produced segment, produced for an earlier DVD version of Young Guns, features historians Bob Boze Bell, then-editor of True West magazine), Drew Gomber (Hubbard Museum of the American West) and Leon (Claire) Metz (The History Channel’s Real West), provides a useful insight to Billy and the Regulators’ vendetta against the Santa Fe Ring, its clear if unsubtle television-style narration complemented by a vibrant array of uncredited period photographs and artwork.

Also included are the film’s teaser trailer—a unique take on the genre featuring footage from the single first day of shooting. The cast members each stare down the camera as it dollies up at each of them in turn like they were the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, the group of them then erupting in gunfire. It was a bravado tactic that took theatergoers by surprise and created some healthy buzz for the film—without hinting at all at its narrative content. The film’s theatrical trailer, also included, is more conventional. The Steelbook edition—a Best Buy exclusive—additionally includes an exclusive character set of art cards. Physical media of Young Guns steelbook displaying its cover and contents.

Young Guns will be available for purchase from retailers on December 5, 2023 on 4K UHD/Blu-ray/Digital ($34.99) and 4K UHD/Blu-ray/Digital Best Buy Exclusive Steelbook ($37.99).

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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