Photography: 20th Century Fox

Emilio Estevez fares much better in the 1990 sequel to “Young Guns.”

Let’s not mince words: 1988’s Young Guns, — AKA The Brat Pack on Horseback — was a poor excuse for a western, and the worst kind of anachronistic swill. One of its many low points was reached when Emilo Estevez jumped on his steed, affected an expression of grim determination, turned to his fellow outlaws, and said, “OK, let’s rock!” Not to be outdone, another outlaw snapped an insult: “You gotta earn your keep — you can't be some geek off the street!”

And so it went, as Estevez and five young costars dressed up in cowboy mufti, hoping to pass themselves off as Wild West outlaws. Unfortunately, they looked like they would be more at home on the cover of an album by some mid-’70s country-rock band. Estevez, cast as Billy the Kid, and brother Charlie Sheen seemed particularly out of place. Indeed, they always looked like they were just a few blocks away from their hairstylist.

So it may seem like the faintest of praise to say Young Guns II is a considerable improvement over its predecessor. But this 1990 sequel to the 1988 sleeper hit has several things going for it, not the least of which is a better sense of time (1878) and place (Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory). You can compare the films for yourself when AMC airs them back-to-back starting at 8 p.m. ET Thursday, April 27.

Estevez, one of the relatively few repeat performers from the first film, appears a good deal scruffier, and a lot more comfortable in the saddle. To be sure, he doesn’t play Billy this time with quite the same borderline-psychotic intensity that sporadically enlivened Young Guns. But, on the other hand, he doesn’t encourage anyone to “rock,” either.

In the sequel, which picks up the narrative one year later, Billy the Kid — or, to be more precise, William H. Bonney — remains drunk on the power of his own fearsome reputation, and continually risks death at the hands of lawmen, vigilantes or back-shooting reward-seekers. He could live in peace by riding off to Old Mexico, but, no, that would be too easy. “I’d be just another gringo down there,” he complains, greatly preferring the mixed blessing of an outlaw’s fame.

When two former buddies, Doc (Kiefer Sutherland) and Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), are rounded up by a Lincoln County posse, Billy gallops into town to free them. But the guys aren’t particularly pleased to be reunited with Billy, especially after he angers the region’s most powerful cattle baron, John Chisum (James Coburn). And things only get worse when Chisum hires Billy’s old friend, rustler-turned-sheriff Pat Garrett, to capture Billy before he and his gang can cross the border.

William Petersen, still in his pre-C.S.I. period, makes a passably formidable foil for Estevez. But neither he nor scriptwriter John Fusco make the relationship between Billy and Garrett at all compelling. The two legendary figures fared much better in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a flawed but fascinating 1973 film in which, ironically, James Coburn played the lawman. (Kris Kristofferson was Billy.) Coburn’s presence in this film only serves to inspire unfavorable comparisons.

Sutherland and Phillips have what amount to cameo roles in Young Guns II, doing little more than reacting with dismay or anxiety each time Billy does something crazy. But Christian Slater has some amusingly wacko moments as Arkansas Dave Rudolph, a cocky outlaw who can’t accept the fact that Billy has taken over his gang. Alan Ruck, the sad-faced schoolmate in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Balthazar Getty play other new outlaw recruits.

Young Guns II is something less than guns-a-blazin’ exciting, and at least one major action sequence, a nighttime jail break, is confusingly photographed and choreographed. But New Zealand-born filmmaker Geoff Murphy (Goodbye Pork Pie, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) keeps things moving as at reasonably brisk pace, and brightens a few scenes with touches of dark humor. And there's a clever framing device for the film, drawn from legends that allege Billy the Kid survived well into 20th century. Who knows? Maybe, in real life, he lived long enough to rock.

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