Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When I See a Blog that Hasn’t Been Updated in Over 2 Months, I Just Go …

No excuses – we've been remiss. Nearly 2 months without a post has given us plenty of time to concentrate on life's more important pursuits. That one of those pursuits happened to be watching the new Image Blu-Ray of Billy Jack surprises us as much as you. Anyway, for your patience you are now well and justly rewarded with a 2K word fun run through the film. Ready?

Billy Jack

As much a product of its age as a Haight-Ashbury time capsule buried in 1969, Billy Jack is a sequel of a sort to Tom Laughlin's 1969 biker picture The Born Losers, both of which he directed under the pseudonym T C Frank. Losers was straight-ahead exploitation and featured the first appearance of the ass kicking, ex-Green Beret half breed, Billy Jack (Laughlin, looking like Robert Blake's handsome older brother) protecting a small town from a biker gang, who were tough and ruthless in addition to rough and toothless. Laughlin next directed a pair of babysitter sexploitation films and a tepid horror picture, The Touch of Satan, under yet another pseudonym, Don Henderson, before crafting another Billy Jack adventure, this time the scope of the battle would widen to current hot-button social issues with the hero battling both a corrupt land baron and the racist town that he rules with an iron fist to protect the Native Americans on a nearby reservation and the students and staff at a 'progressive' school.

Sitting through the film from beginning to end for the first time in our adult life was an interesting experience. Of course we remembered the Freedom School, the hippie enclave threatened by a small minded racist town whose evil is embodied in Stuart Posner (Invaders from Mars' Bert Freed) whose family fortune seems to rest on killing wild stallions and selling the meat for dog food. We had forgotten how utterly loathsome Posner's son, Bernard (David Roya) was, though – presented sympathetically at first, as we see him refuse to take part in the horse slaughter (mercifully halted by Billy's arrival) and then goaded by his domineering father into all manner of foulness, including rape (both statutory and otherwise) and murder. We remembered that the town sheriff had a daughter, pregnant after running away to San Francisco and being "passed around" from one filthy hippie to another, who goes to live at the school under the protection of Billy and the school's founder, Jean Roberts (Laughlin's wife and frequent co-star Delores Taylor) even if we were disappointed to find the evil sheriff played by one of our heroes, Kenneth Tobey, who spent the 1950s saving the world from The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The Vampire, to name but a few. It was genuinely depressing to see him smacking his pregnant teen daughter around, and we cheered his Norma Rae moment when he stood up and screamed at the hippies.

What we didn't remember were the long periods where Billy Jack disappears from the picture entirely, leaving us in the ill graces of the inhabitants of the Freedom School, many of which are played by the actual members of the SF-based improv group, The Committee, including an utterly filthy looking Howard Hesseman. Hesseman and friends are sure that they could bring the locals around and prevent them from passing an ordinance restricting the kids from the town with a display of authentic street theater. Now, for those lucky few out there who can't imagine the sheer moral terror of this so-called 'street theater', let me, as the kids say, spell it out for you. Imagine the worst standup artist that you've ever seen; now make him into the most hideously trite invocation of a 60s radical that you can think of. Add enough members to create a troupe and imagine them doing freeform political skits that will take 'the man' down a peg or two with biting parody steeped in social commentary. Finally, add the realization that they're really making fun of you; they look at you for a moment, size you up for the kill and then begin their impression by ruffling a pretend Wall Street Journal, puff on a pretend pipe and talking like Thurston Howell III. Just think of how much you'd want to punch the little creep right in the Jesus beard – now imagine being stuck in their company for a half dozen endless scenes in the middle of the karate action revenge pic you've just settled down with.

In case you think we're exaggerating, take the 'town square' scene that begins at almost exactly the 1hr mark in the film. This particular bit of hysteria finds Hesseman & Co staging a mugging at a park bench; I won't even begin to go into the bit, but it suffices to say that even the town sheriff gets involved (the nice one, not the racist, child abusing one) and this non-starter goes on for 5 full minutes of screen time! That might not sound like a lot to you citizens reading this now, but 5 minutes passing on film is an eternity (imagine counting "one Mississippi" 300 times) and it became instantly clear why AIP and Fox both jumped ship at various times during the film's production history. That 5 minute sequence is much longer than the film's famous fight scene in which Billy squares off against nearly a dozen agitated rednecks and is far from the only scene of its kind in the picture (you can discover the hilariousness of the Cheech & Chong-inspired 'driving in a car while smoking week' sketch on your own). These scenes strike an indelible chord when paired with the discovery of the body of a brutally murdered Indian boy, or the protracted rape of Jean Roberts while tied nude to the ground.

Scenes constantly butt up against each other that have no business being in the same film, and yet this crazy gumbo manages to come together into a reasonably cohesive picture. It speaks volumes about the show that it's still good enough to overcome these moments that would easily derail a lesser picture. Director Laughlin has a good eye for composition and chooses his angles extremely well; many individual sequences are quite powerful, including the mustang round up that plays over the opening credits (to the strains of "One Tin Soldier") and is good at working us up into a lather while we anticipate the arrival of Billy Jack to set things right. Early in the film, Billy strolls into the town's ice cream shop (obviously a lightning rod for trouble) just after Bernard has finished pouring flower on the heads of the cute little Indian children in an effort to whiten them up and make them eligible for service. Billy stews a bit, rubbing his forehead in a theatrically exasperated gesture and begins talking about how Jean keeps admonishing him to keep his temper in check, all the while moving to within ass kicking range. He then talks at length about each of the defiled children and how long they'll have to carry the memory of this horrific event and no matter how hard he tries to keep his cool, it just makes him go BERSERK!!! The sequences inside the parlor and its continuation a few minutes later in the town square, amazingly, constitute the films only real fight sequence.

Cleverly planted anticipation led us here, and the promise of more kept us tuned in – but all that ever comes is a single, lethal neck chop that triggers the film's final act. We'd really, really like to see more, as the scene is brutally kinetic and superbly choreographed by the great Hapkido master Han Bong-soo, who also stood in for Laughlin for some of the more complicated moves ("I'm going to put my right foot right in your ear, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it"). Incidentally, dropping Han's name in martial arts circles will illicit well-deserved head nodding as the man could literally take you apart and reassemble you before you even knew the fight had started, but also had a sense of humor, owing to his memorable appearance as Dr. Klahn in the "Fistful of Yen" segment in the Kentucky Fried Movie ("Take him to Detroit!"). This action bait 'n switch continued through the film's sequels, 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack and 1977's Billy Jack Goes to Washington, with the hectoring political content increasing and ass kicking decreasing at a geometric rate. And if Billy Jack seems somewhat bloated with hippies and Indian welcoming ceremonies at 114min, Trial feels absolutely soul shattering at 170min (we've never actually made it through Trail in a single sittings, and feel that the even stranger Billy Jack Goes to Washington is an easier pill to swallow at 155min and featuring old pros E G Marshall and Pat O'Brien in supporting roles).

This isn't to say that Billy Jack is bereft of interesting performances; Laughlin is surprisingly believable in the central role (if we drop Robert Blake's name again we fear it will break, but there's some of that same intensity that made Blake a believable bad ass) and Freed and Tobey are old school pros, incapable of a bad performance. One actor for whom this film should have been a breakout is David Roya as the twisted young Bernard Posner. Bernard shows a hint of humanity early on by refusing to slaughter the stallions, but is soon browbeaten by his father into becoming an absolutely sadistic villain, all while maintaining a cool detachment that's, well…cool. Roya is a magnetic presence in the Ryan O'Neal / Sam Bottoms mold and should have been a much bigger deal in a decade that allowed such men to flourish, but bad blood between himself and Laughlin (Roya insists that he was supposed to receive billing on the film's poster, only to have his name wind up literally at the bottom of the credit crawl, leading to a lawsuit that Roya lost and a subsequent unofficial blacklisting). There's a recent interview with Roya here that makes for an interesting read and provides a different look at Laughlin than we've had elsewhere.

Interestingly, Billy Jack's one unassailable claim to fame comes in the manner of its release. After its initial release was bungled by Warner Bros Laughlin negotiated a deal with the studio wherein he would take the film around the country, territory by territory, and rent out the individual theaters (actually letting the theater keep 100% of concession sales) which were then up to him to fill – and Laughlin's clever ad campaign did just that, earning the $800,000 indie in the neighborhood of $50 million, making Billy Jack one of the most profitable films of all time. The Trial of Billy Jack went this release route one better; instead of regional advertising and releasing, Laughlin arranged to have the film released on well over a thousand screens at once backed by television ads on the national network news. The gambit paid off once again, raking in big capitalist bucks for the wildly overlong film. Billy Jack Goes to Washington, however, did not ever receive a general release and only had scattered screenings before its eventual release on home video in the 1990s. The Laughlins will be happy to give you their own set of reasons as to why the film was shelved, most of which have to do with Washington politicos getting wind of the plot and sabotaging the release rather than have their own thinly veiled dirty laundry aired in a feature film. We suspect that few would have the patience to sit through Laughlin's merciless stretching of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to shoehorn the unstable Billy Jack into congress (though Laughlin tried to head this particular issue off at the pass by bringing in Frank Capra Jr. as producer).

Surprisingly, Image's new Blu-Ray edition actually looks pretty terrific, giving the nearly 40 year old film its best video transfer by a long shot. The 1080p picture displays far richer color than we would have thought possible, along with strong detail and without any egregious digital manipulation. We're guessing that Laughlin gets a lot of the credit for this, as the film elements are likely under his care rather than rotting in a studio vault and getting passed around whenever a division is sold off. The two commentary tracks (recorded for previous DVD editions in 2000 and 2005) feature Laughlin and Taylor and neither seems different enough from the other to warrant the inclusion of both. There's also a very strange documentary on the film's unique production and distribution history that opts for an unusual cut & paste montage style (along with self-serving narration in very poor-quality audio) and a sampling of TV ads from the period. Laughlin's two adult children appear to be responsible for much of the restoration and HD mastering and deserve to be lauded for an excellent job (with the exception of the unusual menu screen, utilizing funhouse-mirror images from the film backed by odd music cues ripped from a Nic Roeg dream sequence).