Fight Nerd Cinema: “Billy Jack” movie review

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Ah, the 1970’s! The Kung Fu movie genre in America was still young and fresh. Bruce Lee had just kicked off the franchise, and it would not take long for the emigration of more Chinese superstars and one-off films from other foreign actors. It was only a matter of time before American martial-artists wanted their time to shine, and that is where this episode of Fight Nerd Cinema begins.

Directed by T.C. Frank, 1971’s cult classic “Billy Jack” starred Tom Laughlin (who actually was T.C. Frank but using a pseudonym, but we will get to that in a bit) is the tale of an American Kung Fu cowboy who rights the wrongs of the world and takes the law into his own hands. The movie spawned a franchise unto itself with several sequels, and today we will look at one of those films in the series!

Spoiler-Free Synopsis:

“One Tin Soldier” by Coven plays as we see a herd of horses making their way from open ranges back to captivity, where a group of modern-day cowboys aim their rifles to slaughter them to sell their meat. Suddenly, our hero Billy Jack intervenes on his tan horse and stops them from killing the animals, since they are on Indian land. It is revealed through narration from the teacher at a desert “freedom school” that Billy Jack is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war, as well as master of hapkido and firearms, and most importantly, a “half-breed”, part Native-American and part caucasian.

Billy soon brings a young pregnant runaway named Barbara (Julie Webb) to the aforementioned “freedom school” after finding her beaten and unconscious in a field. The teacher and love interest of Billy named Jean Robert, played by Delores Taylor, reveals it is a progressive school for hippies that takes in youngsters of any background (mind you, a school for hippies that vehemently prohibits drug use, go figure).

On a trip to the city, the Native American students are refused service at an ice cream parlor and harassed by Bernard Posner (played by David Roya), son of a corrupt businessman, both of whom are racist and go to great lengths to demonstrate that. Right on cue, Billy Jack hits the scene and kicks some butt to save the day, which inevitably brings more trouble and begins a violent chain of events as Posner and his posse battle against Billy Jack in order to get Barbara back.

Thus ends our spoiler-free synopsis, hit the jump for the rest of the lowdown on “Billy Jack!”

The Inside Scoop:

This is technically the second film in the “Billy Jack” series, since the character first debuted in “The Born Losers” in 1967. The film was a huge break-through when it came out in 1971, since it was really the first of its kind in America. The “kung-fu craze” was just beginning in that era, with more Chinese imported action films from the Shaw Brothers beginning to penetrate the market. “Billy Jack” was meant to bridge the gap for American audiences and give them an American hero to root for rather than the Asian ones, and also begin to introduce the viewers to the roots of the philosophy behind the martial arts.

When the movie was initially released by Warner Bros., it bombed hard in spite of critical praise, and the company quickly gave up on the martial arts genre. Laughlin eventually bought back the rights to the film, and in 1973, months after Bruce Lee died, he distributed the movie on his own, where it’s re-release caused it to generate over $40 million USD.

The Breakdown:

If you ever thought any of Bruce Lee’s movies were dated, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve witnessed “Billy Jack”. The film does not age well by any means, so the best way to get the most out of your viewing experience is to take a hippie approach to it and let go of your preconceived notions.

The film starts off fine enough, but once we hit the middle after my synopsis ends, things come to a grinding halt for a long length of time. The scene with the hearing between the town legislators and the freedom school drags on and on, marred by terrible audio. It’s an important scene and much of it is ad libbed, which is great, but it could have been accomplished in a much shorter time span.

Following that obnoxiously long scene is when the legislators head to the “freedom school” and see what it’s like on campus. Again, another ad libbed scene that drags on and adds very little to the plot other than showing us hippies against “the man”. Combined with inaudible sound, good luck keeping awake and following what happens in the twenty minutes it takes for this to end. If you want to see how not to shoot a scene in a movie, just watch the middle of this film for this never-ending sequence and educate yourself.

Just when you thought that the movie was done screwing around, the hippies decide to take to the town to perform more skits in public. The film runs nearly two ours long, and had they edited those three scenes down with the denizens of the school, the film could have been trimmed down to a reasonable 90 minutes.

For a film named after a fighter, there is very little of Billy Jack actually in the movie. The ratio of annoying hippies to Jack is easily 8 to 1! I hate to do this but I highly recommend you skip through these scenes if you watch this since they offer nothing to any part of the plot. Just when you thought you were through with those scenes, a few more do pop up, but they are actually tied into what is happening in other locations and work.

The students of the “freedom school” are irritating and obnoxious. They do little to make themselves likable and even less to help their cause and that of the rest of their group. You won’t just be scratching your head at the absurd amount of stupid things these kids do, you will be rooting for the bad guys to hurry up and kill them. Delores Roberts plays her part of the pacifist teacher well and is more the star of the movie than Billy Jack, especially since she is nearly every scene while Billy is off-screen doing… who knows what since he just mysteriously arrives when he is needed.

Considering that Tom Laughlin directed, co-wrote and starred in this film, I expected to see a lot more of him. In a surprise twist, the man behind so much of the creation of this movie takes a back seat to the other characters in the film. When he is on-camera, he is a vigilante that arrives to protect hippies and Indians alike, but often uses bully tactics to get what he wants since, as the Sheriff says, he is above the law thanks to his ties with the Native Americans. HIs calm tone of voice hides a psychotic nature that makes him frightening to his enemies, but simultaneously makes him seem unstable and not much of a hero when you really look at what he is supposed to represent.

If you follow the traditional three-act structure of movies, the second act does not really kick in until 90 minutes in, partly because of those awful scenes that dragged on earlier that accomplished nothing. The third act abruptly starts only minutes after that, and then the movie is over.

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting!” – The action scenes:

The fight scenes were choreographed by Hapkido expert Bong Soo Han, who was teaching at a YMCA in California. Han dramatically cut down on his classes to make time for the months it took to choreograph the fights, and the six weeks of actual filming. In those six weeks, not enough time was spent on the choreography, resulting in many casualties on set from stuntmen who were not ready for the scenes. This is pretty evident when you actually watch the film.

Our first fight comes pretty early in the film inside an ice cream parlor, where Billy Jack knife-hand chops and roundhouse kicks his way to victory against Bernard and his oversized friend, “Dinosaur”. A quick fight and a quick win, which leads Billy to exit the parlor barefoot and prepare to take on about a dozen other men which leads into a nice sequence with more flying feet and a brief hapkido display. There’s a terrible L-cut at the end of this scene when the sheriff steps in to stop the scuffle, but I recommend you see it for yourself to see how out of place it feels.

When is the next fight in this film? Good question! The answer is not for another 100 minutes, when Billy Jack chops Bernard in the throat and that is pretty much the action start to finish, other than Bernard missing a shot at point black range, then firing a round into Billy’s gut, who does not seem to notice either of those things. The fight is finished in one blow, and that’s the end of the hand-to-hand combat.

Following that, we have a shoot-out between Billy and the police for the climax. Ever play a video game and your character is forced to protect or “escort” another character from one place to another, and that character you have to protect is the most annoying twit ever? That sums up this scene as another of those stupid hippie kids gets in the way and drags this movie down.

What else can I say about the action scenes? Nothing. They were so short and scant of action that I am shocked I managed to write this much about them. Basically, if you are hoping to see some great martial arts displays, you best find another movie to watch.

The Final Verdict:

Billy Jack puts the “fist” in “pacifist”, and in turn defeats the purpose of what those anti-violent hippies mean in the first place. It’s a mixed message, and I am sure most of the questions I have with this film are answered in the sequel, but that is for another day. Laughlin had not done a movie before and it shows in every drawn-out scene that we are forced to watch, hoping to see some more butt-kicking, only to be disappointed after sitting through two hours of talking in circles.

The film does not hold up at all to the test of time, but it is the by-product of it’s era. It’s amazing this indy film gained as much momentum as it did and still does, and it’s easy to see why. The action was barely worth mentioning, and the film ends like so many modern films, leading itself directly into a sequel which I feel hurts it more than helps it, especially after all the meaningless scenes we had to sit through.

I give this film a generous two out of five stars, and not because it has not survived the sands of time. I enjoyed parts of this film, and that was it – parts. As a whole, this thing is a mess. The scenes between Billy and Jean are magic, mainly because Roberts would become Laughlin’s real life wife, but their film relationship is barely explored as we are forced to sit through endless amounts of irritating young hippies being irritating young hippies. This is not an action movie, but focuses more on free-thinking and philosophy, but just what that philosophy was, I am not sure. I was tempted to give this movie one star, but those sparse action scenes and solid acting from Laughlin and his wife saved this from getting a worse rating.

If you want to give this film a shot, you can get the whole series on Amazon called The Complete Billy Jack Collection (Born Losers/Billy Jack/The Trial of Billy Jack/Billy Jack Goes to Washington) for a measly $17, and frankly, it might be worth it for its awfulness. This film is ripe for riffing, so revel in the terribleness of it, or ignore it and spend that money on something with Billy Blanks or Loren Avedon in it.

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