Retro Review: 'Billy Jack'
The introduction of the cult favorite movie character Billy Jack in the Born Losers was hated by critics but loved by fans and the box office numbers backed that up. Unfortunately star and co-creator Tom Laughlin was not happy with how the studio American International Pictures, treated the movie and wanted to take his talents elsewhere. After bouncing around to a number of studios, Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor with whom he conceived of the grizzled hero, decided to take things into their own hands making the follow-up an independently produced endeavor. With this freedom, the couple were finally tell the story they wanted to tell all along with their 1971 cult classic simply entitled Billy Jack.
After the events of the first film, Billy Jack finds himself in the American Southwest where he has taken on the role of protector for a school which encourages kids of all backgrounds to express their artistic side (it is pretty much a summer camp for hippies). Naturally the power players in town are none too happy about a bunch of long haired diverse young people partaking in free expression taking up roots just outside of their square and prejudiced community. One person who despises the school in particular is an abusive deputy who had his pregnant daughter taken there by Billy Jack to save the young woman from the violence she experiences at home. As tensions rise, Billy Jack is forced to battle the local sheriff’s department in order to protect the school he hold dear. Once the dust settles, a corrupt cop is dead and Billy Jack is taken away in a police car as the students salute him and the film closes with the anthem “One Tin Soldier” by Coven.
With more creative freedom, Laughlin was able to go all out with the grassroots hero almost to the point of silliness, but he plays it so straight you either roll with it or get a chuckle out of how seriously he takes it. Though for your own safety I recommend against the chuckling, or he will kick you in the side of your head. Billy Jack in this film is once again cast as a necessary evil of sorts who is willing to operate outside of the law to protect the hip socially-conscious youngsters. The kids at the school are willing to be Laughlin and Taylor’s mouthpieces to speak out on a host of social issues and have the luxury of being pacifists because they have Mr. Jack looking out for them.
Once again Tom Laughlin’s intensity and commitment to his portrayal of the cult cinema hero are not questioned in this flick. The actor went so far as to go through the incredibly dangerous Apache Snake Bite Ceremony, in the making of this film, risking death via rattle snake venom in the process. Aiding him with the physical aspects of making Billy Jack was veteran Native American stunt coordinator Lightning Bear who no doubt ensured the authenticity of this memorable scene. As in the Born Losers, Billy Jack is a character who shows restraint when necessary but is also not above unleashing his aikido skills when called upon. This includes one of the most famous scenes in the flick where he takes his right leg and swiftly brings it around to kick the side of the head of the movie’s main villain.
Billy Jack ranks as the most popular film in this series. Laughlin and Taylor made the most of their creative freedom and crafted a cult classic flick which still holds a devoted audience. It oozes of counterculture 60’s cool in every scene and still holds up as a fun flick today.