Review: Billy Jack (1971)
Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, David Roya,
Fight Choreography by Bong Soo Han
Directed by Tom Laughlin
That time period between the end of the flower power days and the onset of the disco 70‘s was just a plain strange time in American society, but that’s not to say there wasn’t any interesting films, and one of the most interesting–and somewhat strange–is a socially conscious film about a half native American hapkido ex-Green Beret expert who kicks and shoots racism away from a small American town. (I’m talking about Billy Jack, not Steven Seagals’ On Deadly Ground. Wait a second…)
Tom Laughlin stars as Billy Jack, a brooding man who rides around the Indian reservation protecting the wildlife and people from the racist whites who live in the nearby small town. He lives in the hills, and also has ties to the Freedom School, a school on the reservation run by his secret love Jean (played by his real life wife Delores Taylor), and he has a friend in the kind-hearted Sheriff Cole. The school believes in freedom to learn whatever you want, and so the kids learn painting, horse riding, and acting.Things start to go wrong when the teenage daughter of a local police deputy runs away after being beaten up by him for getting pregnant, and is taken in by Billy Jack and the Freedom School. The deputy actually works for the town’s main bigwigs and resident douchebags the Posner family. A steady escalation in the conflict occurs until one of the teenagers at the Freedom School, a young Native American is murdered by Posner’s son Bernard (Roya) , and Billy Jack’s anger finally explodes and he takes his revenge against the Posner family…
Billy Jack is an odd film. One part western, one part Andy Griffith, and one part a Chuck Norris film, it tries to juggle all of it, and surpisingly enough succeeds. The is film is actually a sequel to another film, The Born Losers, but it’s not required for you to see it to get the story here. The premise is actually good, even though there are way too many scenes at the Freedom School that slows down the pace considerably. I don’t think is was necessary to take us through everything they do at the school. A brief overview would’ve been nice, and there are too many scenes where the filmmaker wears his heart on his sleeve so much so that the film nearly turns into a PSA commercial. Tom Laughlin does a fine job as Billy Jack, and plays him with a Native American spiritual slant with a dash of Charles Bronson badassness. His line delivery is well done, and even the preachier scenes he’s still cool to watch. Taylor starts off kind of bland as Jean at first, but she gets better as the film goes on, but the standout scene is where Bernard does something terrible to Jean, and her face, and acting throughout is just great. Bernard Posner, as played by Roya, reminded me of a douchier Christian Bale (they are actually remaking Billy Jack with Mark Wahlberg, which is kinda scary to think about, so maybe Bale would be good as Bernard…)
As for the martial arts, Billy Jack is a hapkido practitioner, and gets one big fight scene midway through the film, and while it is too short, Laughlin does a great job with the kicks (the handwork left something to be desired). The fight choreography is 70‘s style choreographed by Hapkido Master Bong Soo Han, and came out about the same time that Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss was unleashed on the world, but the fight stays within the style of the rest of the film, in other words not overly complex. What really killed me is the missed opportunity. David Roya was a Tae Kwon Do instructor and didn’t get a single fight scene! A real martial arts fight with Billy Jack may have sent this film into legend, but it wasn’t to be.
Billy Jack is a worthwhile film to seek out, if only for one of the most badass screen lines ever spoken:
“I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face, and you know something? There isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.”–Billy Jack
Well said, Billy Jack. Well said.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):
CHOREOGRAPHY(4): There’s really only one real fight in the film, and it’s done well, if simple, but it does convey that Billy Jack is a badass, but the fight was far too short.
STUNTWORK: (5): The stunts are passable, especially one guy that looked as if Laughlin really DID kick his face in, and in fact this rating would be lower if not for that guy.
STAR POWER: (6) Tom Laughlin made several more Billy Jack films and had a prolific film career, and look out for 70‘s TV star Howard Hessman (WKRP in Cincinatti) as an instructor at the Freedom School.
FINAL GRADE: (7) The individual parts are weak, but as a whole it’s an enjoyable film whose slow pacing may have kept it from true greatness. Maybe the remake will clear that up?
NEXT: Aaron Kwok takes on Marc Dacascos and…Coolio?! China Strike Force!