Back in the late '60s and early '70s, anti-establishment films captured the imagination and stoked the passions of a turbulent society hankering for radical change. Railing against war and prejudice, and advocating free speech, free thinking, and free love, these low-budget, independent movies with misunderstood heroes often tried to temper their heavy-handed messages with enough action and attitude to appease the masses. Not all succeeded, but 'Billy Jack' sure did, tapping into the palpable emotion and malcontent of many Americans fed up with the country's state of affairs to the tune of millions of box office dollars. Though its altruistic themes of peace, love, and brotherhood are timeless, this martial arts, anti-everything cult classic remains firmly rooted in the '70s. Once considered edgy and bold, 'Billy Jack' now exudes a strange quaintness that severely dulls its heal-the-world mojo and turns what was once a blazing hot property into little more than an oddball curio.
The story focuses on the efforts of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), a half-breed, ex-Green Beret, to protect the minorities and misfits persecuted by bullying bigots in a divided, uptight Arizona community. Billy strives to embrace his peaceful Indian side, but resorts to violence when the situation warrants it, much to the chagrin of Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor, Laughlin's real-life wife), who runs a controversial progressive school for troubled students of various races and backgrounds. As tensions mount, largely due to the sadistic exploits of spoiled bad boy Bernard Posner (David Roya) and his band of thugs, Billy resorts to more drastic measures to exact revenge and ensure that both the school survives and Jean, whom he loves, can continue to teach and help needy children without worrying about vicious repercussions.
I first experienced 'Billy Jack' as a wide-eyed 10-year-old during its wildly popular 1973 re-release. I'd never before seen such a violent movie (although by today's standards, it's pretty tame), and the two things I remember most were Laughlin's slow-motion karate kicks and hand chops to the solar plexus, and Roya cutting open a bodacious bimbo's bra with a switchblade. Both made a big impression on my burgeoning adolescent brain, clouding it with enough stimuli to prevent any of the film's idealistic messages from gaining entrance. But however it wormed its way into my psyche, 'Billy Jack' reeled me in and stayed with me, and the mere mention of it sparked nostalgic memories for years to come.
Seeing it today, however, I found it tough to ignore the rambling script (written by Laughlin and Taylor under a pseudonym), lack of focus, choppy direction (by Laughlin, again under a pseudonym), and bad acting that distinguish the film. Sure, a movie that promotes a non-violent stand (except in extreme situations), the humane treatment of animals, and racial equality and tolerance should be admired, but such lofty principles can't mask the myriad artistic deficiencies plaguing the production. How much you're willing to forgive depends on your affection for 'Billy Jack,' but Laughlin's decision to use non-actors in many key roles – though it may lend the tale a more natural feel – harms the film more than helps it. The stilted, monotonic line readings of many of the students weaken the impact of several key scenes, and though Taylor enjoys a couple of excellent emotional moments, she looks at other times as if she's wandering about in a catatonic stupor. Laughlin, the rebel with a cause who speaks softly and carries a big kick, makes a fine action hero, and his steely-jawed magnetism keeps the enterprise on track. Yet he often sabotages his own efforts with extended improvisational sequences and interminable protest songs that needlessly stretch the running time and try viewer patience.
'Billy Jack' paints an accurate portrait of a specific moment in time, and its 1973 re-release on the heels of the highly publicized and tragic Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota (which shed a fresh spotlight on the sorry state of Native American relations in this country) added significant fuel and relevance to its story. Though the messages Laughlin preaches remain vital today, the vehicle used to transmit them is outmoded, resulting in a very uneven, often shamelessly indulgent film. Even the flower children of the protest era who most likely lined up to see 'Billy Jack' countless times during its theatrical run may now wonder what all the fuss was about.
The packaging advertises a "fully restored and remastered" transfer, and that's exactly what Image delivers. Though the low-budget nature and advanced age of 'Billy Jack' lend a slightly rough quality to the video, it suits the subject matter and never distracts from the on-screen action. A moderate grain structure applies a veneer of texture to the image that seems more pronounced on solid backgrounds, such as the strikingly blue Arizona sky (which itself appears a bit oversaturated and noisy on occasion), but that's in keeping with the film's original look. For the most part, however, colors sport a natural vibrancy and stand out well against the desert backgrounds. The reds and yellows on the patterned native outfits are bright and distinct, although blood looks incredibly fake, taking on the gloppy quality of fingerpaint. Fleshtones can adopt a faint orange tint from time to time, but generally remain true.
With a few exceptions, contrast is excellent, black levels are rich, and fine details are clear and discernible. A few scenes exhibit a nagging softness, but close-ups possess lots of detail and high-def pop, bringing the picture welcome immediacy and presence. Thankfully, digital enhancements have been kept to a minimum, so the genuine feel of the film remains intact, and almost every nick and scratch has been removed from the print. This is by far the best 'Billy Jack' has ever looked on home video, and fans should be thrilled with this meticulous restoration.
The video quality of 'Billy Jack' is impressive, but the highly nuanced and active DTS-HD Master Audio track really surprised me. Films from 1971 – especially those with a shoestring budget – usually don't sound this good, or possess as much sonic punch. From the get-go, though, it's evident we're in for an aural treat. The dynamic rendering of "One Tin Soldier," the movie's highly recognizable theme song by one-hit wonder Coven, powers across all five speakers with marvelous clarity and tonal depth, and the ensuing horse hooves nicely rev up the subwoofer. There's also quite a bit of ambient surround activity, as chirping birds add lovely atmosphere to some of the quieter scenes. In addition, gunfire is crisp and directional, and Laughlin's kicks and chops enjoy good thudding weight.
Dialogue is well prioritized, and even though the actors often mumble, conversations are never difficult to understand. A slight bit of distortion creeps in now and then, usually when voices become shrill, but it never becomes bothersome. Though the equipment used to record the film was most likely far from state-of-the-art, and some of the effects surely have been artificially enhanced for this Blu-ray edition, the high-quality audio track makes 'Billy Jack' a far more immersive experience than it otherwise might be.
A few extras lend some historical perspective and insight into this cult favorite.
'Billy Jack' has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately this snapshot of the protest era is not a well-made film and hasn't held up over the years. Alternately touchy-feely and mildly violent, Tom Laughlin's cult classic possesses a few signature moments (and forever owns the word "berserk"), but often feels as aimless and nomadic as its title character. The restored video and audio considerably punch up the proceedings, as do a couple of notable extras, but they can't really bring this dinosaur into the new millennium. Still, because of the sensation it once caused and the bygone age it honors, 'Billy Jack' on Blu-ray is worth a look.