The romanticized outlaws of the Old West are a favorite among screenwriters eager to create Western character studies worthy of the great writers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Among the most canonized outlaws of all is William H. “Billy the Kid” Bonney, who has been played on film by Paul Newman, Val Kilmer, Emilio Estevez, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Mack. In a new iteration of the classic tale from director Christopher Forbes, we meet Billy as a teenager in a troubled New Mexico town called Dogma.
In the film’s opening scene, a thin man clad in all black strides into Dogma’s saloon. He walks up to a man sitting at the bar, points his pistol at him and asks if he is a certain, well-known gunfighter. When the man affirms this, the stranger calmly tells him that he’s the first of the four horses of the apocalypse coming to town. This black-clad stranger is making vicious threats, but the audience can’t help but be distracted by the poor production value of the film and by the poor acting of the man himself. It’s the first sign of the problems to come.
Shortly after this saloon scene, the viewer is introduced to Leon Copper (Cody McCarver), a bounty hunter and former US Marshall who intends to kill each member of the stranger’s so-called horses of the apocalypse gang and collect a bounty. He’s met with no resistance by the grateful locals, who whisper behind his back about his past. The story is so formulaic that it’s boring from the get go, especially for a fan of Westerns. Though McCarver gives a good effort, he never manages to bring dimension and depth to Copper. He opts instead to play the bounty hunter as a sensible do-gooder who is happy to face up to his past and take responsibility for his actions.
But Copper simply isn’t a compelling character. Given the strict adherence to old conventions and formulas in the film, it’s surprising that he isn’t painted as a mysterious stranger a la Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. Instead, he’s an open book who we find emotionally available to Katherine Bonney (Kimberly Campbell), a woman he had met years before. He’s equally receptive to her son Billy (Christopher Bowman), who is both the film’s titular character and hardly central to its plot.
As Copper and Katherine warily revisit their old relationship, the remaining members of the four horsemen gang plan an escalating campaign of violence against the town of Dogma. Here begin scenes of shootouts in empty town squares and gun battles in wide streets in front of saloons. There’s a nighttime scene with outlaws on horseback where the horse is partially illuminated from the legs up with a spotlight so that there’s no illusion about the time period during which this is really taking place. Everything is a cliche down to the outlaw who takes over the US Marshall’s office by being arrested and staging a hostel takeover from his cell. It’s easy for viewers to anticipate exactly who will die in the shootouts and who will live, and what the repercussions of both will be.
The worst part about the fight scenes, though, isn’t their poor scripting. It’s the lack of technical panache. In one exemplar scene, Copper and another man take shelter behind a wooden table turned on its side during a gunfight. Despite the fact that they are in the middle of a heated gun battle with a notorious outlaw, there is not one bullet hole to be found anywhere on the set. There are no broken glass bottles, no shattered mirrors, no chairs rendered unserviceable by gunfire. It’s simply inexcusable for a Western made in 2013 to have such inadequate special effects.
Don’t be deceived: for all its posturing, Billy the Kid is hardly about the notorious outlaw at all. It seems like it was meant to be a study in the character of young Billy, but melodramatic acting and an ill-fitting soundtrack tending towards ‘80s hair rock overrun any nuances that might be found in the script. Billy the Kid slowly comes to a very predictable end, leaving viewers with the impression that they’ve just watched the dress rehearsal of an amateur stage play, not a professionally produced film.
In the way of special features, the DVD release of Billy the Kid offers an audio commentary with three of the film’s actors, outtakes, a trailer and a music video by Cody McCarver. None of these features is particularly outstanding, though McCarver’s music video may hit a chord with fans of southern country music. Unfortunately, it’s almost painful to listen to the audio commentary. The actors involved show real pride in their work, but the film just doesn’t live up to their enthusiasm for it.