If "Young Guns II" has it right, 'twas celebrity that drove Billy the Kid. The poor darlin' was not an infantile murderer at all, but a victim of the Wild Western hype machine, a proto-Warholian headline-maggot addicted to his own shameful legend. If only he'd had a publicist, the poor li'l whippersnapper probably would have gone into show business, maybe even gotten a lucrative book contract.
Poppin' Fresh look-alike Emilio Estevez reprises his role of Billy, the most famous, fatuous and, yes, pudgy boy in all of New Mexico, in the further adventures of the brat pack on horseback. As drawn and portrayed, Billy is Huck Finn unglued, jist a fun-loving psychopath popping off authority figures with his pals.
Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips return, as their characters were among the few still alive at the end of the prequel. Phillips is the pouty Indian-Mexican misfit Chavez, a close Billy buddy and one of the earliest known victims of testosterone poisoning. Sutherland portrays the poesy-quoting gunman Doc, who tries to escape the violent life but is forced to rejoin Billy and Chavez when he is extradited to New Mexico.
The West has changed since the fellas' last gun battle. In 1878, Lincoln County is populated with corrupt officials, reckless young desperadoes and citizens demanding statehood. One of the Kid's former colleagues, Pat Garrett (William Petersen), has become a lawman hired to track Billy down. So Billy, Chavez and Doc head for Old Mexico with three new recruits -- Arkansas Dave (Christian Slater), a 14-year-old orphan (Balthazar Getty) and a widowed farmer (Alan Ruck). Garrett and his men ride in pursuit, gradually whittling down the gang of boy bandits.
Geoff Murphy, the New Zealander who directed "Utu," brings an epic look to this pandering vapidity, this aw-shucks gunplay that turns audiences into a sort of vicarious lynch mob. Murphy and screenwriter-producer John Fusco make the bad guys sympathetic by playing the good guys as fools, goons, racists and prudes. That way it's funny when cheeky Billy blows them full of holes.
"Young Guns II" is obviously not alone in exploiting the modern taste for violence or in addressing itself to young adults. A lot of double-barreled cowpuffery, it romanticizes the deaths of the silly Billy boys, as well as their pathetic hubris. While it borrows from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," it lacks that western's whimsicality, and there is no retribution. Billy, who appears in the opening scenes as a septuagenarian, never gets his. A roundup of tired cliches and tired acting -- except for Sutherland and Petersen -- "Young Guns II" is dull as beans and lazy as tumbleweed.
Young Guns II, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for violence, nudity and profanity.