Sunday, February 24, 2013

Just A Fight To Survive

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Rated PG
Running Time 1:54
Directed by Tom Laughlin
Stars Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor
Originally published May 12, 2006

BILLY JACK is nothing less than one of the most popular motion pictures ever produced. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that few movies released this decade, if any, will be as profitable or be seen by more people than BILLY JACK was in its theatrical releases. The story of a half-Indian and ex-Green Beret who protects a schoolful of teenaged hippies from bigots, BILLY JACK is a testament to the tenacity and confidence of Tom Laughlin, who produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the film as Billy Jack.

Although BILLY JACK was a tremendous hit in the early 1970s, it can be something of a chore to watch today. Much of it has dated terribly—for instance, the drug humor of the improvisational group The Committee (including a long-haired Howard Hesseman) and the folk music performed by the flower children characters—but BILLY JACK’s stances against individualism, non-violence, and racial intolerance are as relevant now (or more so, as Washington extremists strive to plaster Red and Blue labels over us) as ever.

The story behind BILLY JACK is a fascinating one. The leading character portrayed by Laughlin had already appeared in a biker movie, THE BORN LOSERS, which American International released in 1967. Laughlin, who produced and directed that picture too, held on to the rights to Billy Jack, and after THE BORN LOSERS became a hit, he landed financing from Warner Brothers to do a bigger-budgeted sequel called BILLY JACK, which first came out in 1971.

Warners, in Laughlin’s view, buried the film on the bottom of double bills in dirty, disreputable theaters, so he sued the studio and received the right to release the movie his way. The Laughlin method was to travel around the country “four-walling” theaters—renting the auditoriums himself, playing BILLY JACK in them, keeping all the box office receipts, and giving the theaters the concession profits. Laughlin and his family (who also appeared in the movie) made personal appearances to support the release, and relied on massive regional television advertising to get the word out. BILLY JACK, which was already something of a hit in 1971, was a veritable smash upon its 1973 re-release, breaking box office records across the country and turning its karate-kicking anti-hero into a household name.

BILLY JACK is nothing if not ambitious. It preaches about so many subjects—gun control, education, racism, the generation gap—that the film often falls into tedium. The script is by Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor, who plays Jean, the teacher at the Freedom School, where troubled teens go to escape their uncaring families or recover from bouts with drugs or other dangerous lifestyles. One is 15-year-old Barbara (Julie Webb), who escaped her abusive father Mike (Kenneth Tobey), ran off to Haight-Ashbury, got pregnant, came home to a beating from her father, and found shelter at Jean’s school, where she begins a loving relationship with an Indian boy. Their mixed-race relationship is a burr under Mike’s saddle, spurring him to create trouble around their small Arizona town for the students, who are also harassed by weak Bernard (David Roya), the son of venal town boss Posner (Bert Freed).

Luckily for Jean and the kids, they have a protector in Billy Jack, one of Hollywood’s few liberal action heroes. Laughlin’s clenched though charismatic performance makes Billy Jack an interesting character. He learned to kill in Vietnam, where he saw so much senseless bloodshed that he makes a strong effort to return to his Native American roots and avoid the violence of the White Man’s world, even though mankind’s inhumanity to his fellow man forces him to seek justice using the skills taught to him by the government, namely hapkido karate.

If you’re patient enough to endure BILLY JACK’s pitfalls, there’s much to admire. Yes, when the Laughlins’ daughter Teresa begins caterwauling her way through a self-penned folk ballad about her dead brother, you’ll want to strangle her. However, Laughlin does an okay job staging his action scenes, which attempt to preach non-violence, while simultaneously stimulating us with shots of Billy Jack kicking bad guys in the face. Few cinematic moments are more moving than the opening title sequence involving an illegal roundup of wild mustangs, beautifully shot by cinematographer Fred Koenekamp and set to Coven’s affecting Top 40 hit “One Tin Soldier.” The acting is variable with hardy character actors like Tobey (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) and Clark Howat (as the sympathetic sheriff) doing nice work and amateurs such as Taylor barely able to recite dialogue with a vestige of emotion. But what the lesser actors lack in technique, they make up for in honesty and earnestness.

This cinematic ode to tolerance and peace also has one classic moment that’s the stuff of Hollywood legend. Bernard and his posse harass the children in an ice cream parlor by pouring flour over the head of a cute little girl. Billy Jack waltzes in and gives a long speech about beautiful young angels mistreated by idiotic savages. Then, he “...just...goes...BERSERK,” freaks out, and kicks the crap out of the hoods. Irony or Laughlin’s commercial instincts kicking in?


Goat said...

I had a friend I worked with who was just shy of obsessed with Billy Jack in the late 90s. I remembered seeing it when I was a kid, but didn't remember anything specific. He brought it in to watch one day. and not long after, the "take this right foot, and I'm gonna whop you on THAT side of your face" scene became a staple of our daily motivation in preparation for a day of working retail. Thanks for the re-reminder!

Richard Harland Smith said...

As I remember it, the story is that Laughlin wanted to make Billy Jack as early as 1966 or 1967 but could only get financing to do The Born Losers, which had a more marketable logline. The success of one led to the other... but I think The Born Losers is the better movie, partly because it humanizes its villains somewhat, showing you both sides of the equation.