Grindhouse Movie Reviews/Seen on DVD: The Billy Jack Collection

Billy Jack & the Hollywood Generation Gap

“Kitten on wheels with her bike, her boots, and bikini! Out for kicks, in for trouble, she’s going to join the BORN LOSERS…” Well, not voluntarily she isn’t.

Image I can't believe I went this long without seeing the cinematic debut of Billy Jack, Born Losers! Teen girl who rides a hog wearing a white bikini and go-go boots, biker rapist with no tongue, gangster den with Himler quotes spray painted on the wall, bikers with giant crucifix crosses tied onto their handlebars, an inexplicable cameo with Jane Russell freaking out like a monkey on meth — woo hoo!

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A marginal exploitation flick, perhaps, but lovable in its earnest incompetence.

Until recently obtaining the four-CD Billy Jack Collection, I somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a movie starring the barefoot kung fu half-breed Indian who speaks softly but carries a deadly toe.

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This, despite practically growing up at the drive-in theaters around my rural Connecticut hometown, where the second eponymous BJ movie seemed to run as a backup feature to everything from 20th Century Oz to Death Race 2000, the Groove Tube, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and so many other ‘70s ozoner staples.

Whenever ol’ Billy Jack screened, however, I always managed to either be elsewhere or doing something in my car entirely unrelated to movie watching…

So I approached the Billy Jack Collection knowing little more than that he was some kinda barefoot asskicker.

The DVDs come with their original commentaries, as well as latter-day commentaries featuring the whole filmmaking family — star and co-writer Tom Laughlin, his wife (whom I never realized was the [quite horrible] lead actress in three of the four flicks), their son, who had a bit role in Born Losers, and their daughter, seen singing an out-of-key protest ballad in Billy Jack number two (herein referenced as Eponymous BJ).

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Two movies into the box set, I gotta admit I was charmed by the whole "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" vibe. Both Born Losers and Eponymous BJ are populated with amateur actors, borrowed bikes, outlaw filming on location with no permits, and even actual Hell's Angels playing bit parts in the first one.

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Even the commentaries are homemade and goofy, like they put a cheap tape recorder in the room with one mic and just started chatting (Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor is often so far from the mic that she's barely audible).

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(The poster for the re-release of Born Losers focuses on Laughlin's Billy Jack character, after Eponymous BJ became such a drive-in hit)

The original commentaries with Laughlin and his wife, while insufferably preachy at the time (like Eponymous BJ itself), were pretty cool. Neither of the new commentaries held my attention, tho, as they kept saying the same things as on the originals. The newer “extras” are clearly intended to get people who already owned the individual movies to buy the box set.

After Eponymous BJ, I emailed a friend to say “I can't imagine how the next one, Trial of Billy Jack, can possibly be any good, as the big studio budget would seem to guarantee that the whole homemade amateur-hour vibe won't be the same. And the horror stories I've read about the mostly unfinished Billy Jack Goes to Washington make it sound quite awful, indeed. But I'll be watching it tonight anyway.”

Then, about halfway through Trial, I wrote “Never in my life have I wanted so badly to tell a movie to just shut the fukkup! My gawd, do they ever stop babbling about all the so-called ‘social issues’ ?!? Nothing has happened in over an hour other than this constant, pointless, annoying hippier-than-thou chattering! And the music: sheesh, from the GREAT ‘One Tin Soldier’ in the second movie, to what sounds in this flick like the soundtrack to an hour-long tampon commercial!”

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When Trial (which only contains a few minutes of the titular trial) finally, mercifully ended, I wrote “I'm downright AFRAID of Billy Jack Goes to Washington, after sitting thru THREE EFFIN HOURS of his Trial. I can't even bear to play the Trial commentary, even tho some IMDB posts say it's a good one.”

Trial was unbelievably bad. Billy Jack isn't even IN it for the first half of the movie. And that so-called "massacre" of the student protesters: I swear, it was like Battle for the Planet of the Billy Jacks. Astoundingly awful.

The only good thing in ALL of Trial was seeing the kids from the second movie, Eponymous BJ, grown up a few years later (including his real life daughter, who unfortunately sings yet another horrible song). Maybe four good minutes, and the rest was just ghastly.

Before playing Laughlin’s Washington BJ, I checked out his http://www.BillyJack.com website.

Laughlin is around 80, and his main page features videos that pitch a NEW Billy Jack movie he wants financing for. According to his Wiki page, he's even shot his own self-financed scenes, from multiple unmade BJ sequels. Poor old guy: made ONE great movie in the late '60s (Born Losers), a pretty good oddity in the early '70s (Eponymous BJ), and has spent the rest of his life chasing a dragon that he was only able to ride briefly in his youth, out of sheer luck and happenstance.

Laughlin still seems to have no clue that the only reason the first two films worked was BECAUSE of the ineptness and amateur work. Like I said, a bunch of kids saying, "Hey, let's put on a show!" Like Terror of Tiny Town, except with bikers (Born Losers) and then hippies-slash-Indians (Eponymous BJ).

Once the novelty wore off, if only Laughlin had moved on (tho his Wiki indicates he's had a good life: lots of money from the first two BJs, and he's a successful author of several books on psychology, which he MUST be better at than script writing, acting, directing, AND kung fu/karate).

I finally worked up the nerve to screen Billy Jack Goes to Washington last night, and I’m finishing the commentary now.

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Not quite as horrible as I feared, though the relentless voiceover dialogue, rarely synched to the onscreen action, was as comical as the obvious add-ons, done after they ran out of money shooting the original footage.

The sight of BJ spending what appeared to be uninterrupted DAYS testifying to the politicos (at least judging by how much his beard grows during the marathon) was kind of striking, and certainly memorable, if only in a "WTF?!" kind of way.

The commentary is mostly dreadful, tho he told a few interesting tales of being threatened all over Washington while trying to film at iconic landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and the Library of Congress (which he says he was accused of "defiling").

All in all, glad I watched Laughlin’s Washington BJ. And hope I never have to watch again...

I find it interesting, with the benefit of many decades of hindsight, how Hollywood portrayed the “generation gap” in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Though there were a few genuine youth-created sensations like Easy Rider, the Monkees’ Head, and (to a lesser extent) oddities like The Trip and Riot on Sunset Strip.

However, there were far more examples of clueless “teen” movies, made by folks several decades away from their own teen years.

The occasional actor like James Dean or Marlon Brando may have been able to pull of an accurate portrayal of youth in turmoil amidst an old-school Hollywood production. However, for the most part Hollywood, was as out of touch as television shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space, each of which had episodes attempting to dramatize the wide-ranging societal gap between teens and adults in the late ‘60s.

Image The most notorious Star Trek ep to illustrate this is probably “Miri,” the “bonk bonk on the head” episode where the landing party is stuck on a planet of eternally young juvenile delinquents who want to kill all the adults.

As writer and researcher Jamie Ralph Gardner has pointed out, “The young people in ‘Miri’ are supposed to be biologically 14 years old and younger. Many of the actors were older then what they were portraying. Michael J. Pollard was 27 years old and Kim Darby was 18 or 19 years old. It was a mixture of actual children and adults playing much younger.”

Kim Darby, always a strong presence, puts in a believable performance that elevates "Miri” as a young girl whose crush on Captain Kirk helps bridge their two worlds a bit. I can reluctantly second Jamie’s positive nod to the episode’s general storytelling structure. However, the actual spoken dialogue AND the overall premise still strikes me as epically (and cluelessly) cynical, reeking of senior citizens attempting (and failing) to achieve timely commentary on that era's so-called generation gap.

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In the same ridiculous vein, Lost in Space had the "go-go" episode postulating that falling in with the wrong youth crowd could result in you being brainwashed into go-go dancing at the sound of a trigger gong and becoming a vacuous, self-centered idiot child.

Back to Hollywood features, Wild in the Streets was about a teen President wanting to poison the water supply with LSD. Despite the premise, the satire was NOT a counterculture movie. Rather, it was Hollywood's equiv of DC's Prez comics, or even the older romance comics, where "don't trust anyone over thirty" has less than no weight in stories scripted and drawn by folks WAY over thirty.

Now Born Losers, THAT one actually set up and dramatized the counterculture "don't trust authority" generational gestalt with great success. Especially since Billy Jack at first trusts the authorities to protect the bikini-motorcycle babe. It's only when he finds out that the cops let her get kidnapped by the bikers - again - that Billy goes all Punisher on the gang.

The authorities aren't so much evil, as they are incompetent, or at least uncaring.

Image Neither are the bikers evil - the most powerful scene is when the OTHER girl from the biker den, the one also supposedly raped, turns on her parents and hisses that she went there on PURPOSE, screaming that she LIKED the rough gangbang sex.

Coming from a fresh-faced teen girl dressed like a Barbie doll, especially since the "actress" was just one of the amateurs rounded up for the movie, it's potent and REAL.

Especially when the girl is asked WHY she went back to the bikers, and she essentially tells her dad "Because they're everything you're NOT," that to me is one of the era's best and most real portrayals of the actual generation gap and the huge chasm of distrust between adults and teens.

RE reality in Hollywood’s portrayal of the “generation gap,” I'm also again reminded of Eponymous BJ, and the scene where the Indian school students gather for a town meeting with the elder generation.

One very sincere teen girl stands up and gives a little unscripted speech, asking of the adults "Are you threatened by my sexuality? What is it about me that SCARES you so much?"

That whole scene (and much of the movie) was ad libbed on the spot, and you can tell the kids are really the "young people speaking their minds, getting so much resistance from behind," as Steven Still sings about in "For What It's Worth," one of the classic youth anthems of the era.

At least in Billy Jack, the elders and the kids come to at least a temporary meeting of the minds, especially when doing the improv exercises with Howard Hessman's street theater crew.

Pity that hardly ever happened in the real world.

About the only things worth watching in Billy Jacks three and four (Trial and Washington) were seeing how those kids from the Indian school in part two grew up, including Laughlin's own family. For a buncha non-actors making totally amateur movies, that was an impressive group of very REAL children of the sixties/seventies -

And, for just a few brief moments, those BJ kids really were speaking as the voices of their generation.

BTW, if you’ve ever hankered to see the bikers of Born Losers battle the crazy new wave gangs of the Warriors, your wish has come true:



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Famous Movie Poster Rejects You've Never Seen Part 1: Private collection of movie poster designs published exclusively on the Reader website for the first time ever: Batman, Witches of Eastwick, Supergirl

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Part 2: The Fly, Vamp, Fright Night, Howard the Duck, Stallone: Over the Top, Ladyhawk

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Part 3: Horror film Near Dark, horsey drama Phar Lap, the Robert DeNiro/Albert Brooks sleeper Midnight Run (still under its working title Running Scared when these two posters were mocked up), 3D cartoon Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, Airplane-style comedy Bad Medicine (with Steve Gutenberg and Julie Hagerty), and war story Hamburger Hill.

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Part 4: Collegiate comedy Campus Man, horror hits Wes Craven's Deadly Friend and Blood Diner, and rock and roll horror flop Trick or Treat, as well as Texas Godfather, Vanishing Act, China Girl, 8 Million Ways to Die, sci-fi biker flick City Limits, and war romance Purple Hearts.

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Part 5: Voyage of the Rock Aliens with Pia Zadora, the Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon/Pee Wee Herman surf comedy Back to the Beach, psycho-ex thriller Fatal Attraction, alleged comedy Planes Trains & Automobiles, James Woods in Cop, the Tom Cruise hit All the Right Moves, drive-in horror hit Deadly Blessing, the re-release of Roger Corman's original Little Shop of Horrors, import sex comedy Perfect Timing, historical drama Hanoi Hilton, Stallone sequel Rocky V (under its original title Final Bell), and Nothing But Trouble, back when it was still known as Welcome to Valkenvania.

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Part 6: Horror comedy Return of the Living Dead, Force III, Meatballs III, plainclothes cop thriller Off Limits (Willem Dafoe, Gregory Hines), sci-fi McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me, the Diane Lane potboiler Lady Beware, UK comedy Mr. Love, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Walter Bannert’s German-language Austrian film the Inheritors, the Dudley Moore/Eddie Murphy flop Best Defense, Richard Donner’s Inside Moves, William Peter Blatty’s Ninth Configuration, adventure flick Tai-Pan, German musical the Frog Prince with Helen Hunt, and the Rosary Murders.



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Comments

I like the deli counter philosophy behind the fight scenes in BJ. 20 guys stand in line and wait their turn for a shot at the privilege of beating Billy. Why don't they all simply dog-pile him? And one of the most excruciating times I've ever had at the movies was the screening of a 3 hour work print of "BJ Goes to Washington." Man, did I hate my neighbor by the time that thing ended.

RIP Tom Laughlin, best known from the Billy Jack films. I didn’t actually see any of those until just last year, not even the original biker flick Born Losers – I picked up a box set with all four movies, watched ‘em, listened to the commentaries, and wrote this lengthy Reader feature that also touches on the infamous Star Trek episode “Miri” (“Bonk Bonk on the head!”), Lost in Space’s go-go dancing delinquents, and even the crazy 70s comic book series Prez, about a teenage U.S. President --

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