Shout Select’s Billy Jack the Complete Collection

The B-Movie Isle: Shout Factory’s Billy Jack: The Complete Collection (Shout Select)

The B-Movie Isle/Adam goes back to a simpler time; the 1970’s with Shout Select’s release of Billy Jack: The Complete Collection.  An era when a dude with a denim jacket and black brimmed hat could take on the system for Hippie Kids, kick a couple of dudes in slow motion and everything turn out alright.  Billy Jack along with Buford Pusser (Walking Tall), Paul Kersey (Death Wish) and a host of other vigilantes were the Superheroes of the era.  They fought for truth, justice and the little gal/guy that couldn’t fight for themselves.  Does Billy Jack stand with the titans of the genre?  What is a 3 hour Billy Jack movie like?  How many times do dudes get kicked in slow motion?  And we pay homage to the man, the myth, the legend that is Joe Bob Briggs!  Read on to find out…

The Films

The Billy Jack series is a discovery I made thanks to Monster Vision with Joe Bob Briggs.  Briggs (aka John Bloom) is a figure that we have not discussed on the B-Movie Isle or the Podcast. Though do not let that dissuade from the heavy influence he had on the Podcast, my B-Movie Geekness and Cult Cinema as a whole.

TMC’s Drive-In Theater and TNT’s Monster Vision for many in my age range was the Mecca we prayed to every late Saturday night.  Briggs was our preacher, hanging out in his Texas Tie seated in a comfy lawn chair, expounding his love of the films he was showing.  Briggs’ twangy nature belied a true bad motor scooter of a film critic whose knowledge was as deep as A-List counter parts.

These years were what I like to call the “salad days”.  A happy time when not everyone would attempt to ruin things on the internet.  It was about having to work for true discovery.  Briggs helped with that discovery.  He helped widen your B-Movie gaze.  I would have never seen many films without Monster Vision; The Warriors, Deathstalker, It’s Alive, Zone Troopers are all films that I saw. It was Monster Vision that also brought me to Billy Jack.

Part action movie, part social justice warrior epics, all awesome sauce the entire series of Billy Jack films are ripe for rediscovery.  The most interesting thing about the films is the steady progression showing the corruption and inequity on a larger and larger scale.  Born Losers shows an ineffectual town is overrun by a biker gang.  Billy Jack shows the corruption of small town politics.  The Trail of Billy Jack ups the ante with State Politics and Corporate malfeasance.  Billy Jack Goes to Washington widens the net even further by taking on the entire government.

All the while the series keeping to its exploitation roots of vigilante justice mixed in with social justice warrior leanings.  Writer/Director/Producer/Actor/Et. Al. Tom Laughlin is the heart and soul of this film, along with Writer/Producer/Actress Delores Taylor.  The films wear the couple’s political leanings, view points on life and hearts on metaphorical sleeves.  The husband and wife team have created four films of a specific era and time.  These films could not exist except for the times they were released (from 1967 – 1977).  It’s during this time that you can mix the ideals of Kung-Fu, Easy Rider, The Haight-Ashbury Movement and Indian spiritualism to smashing success.

Born Losers plays like a straight ahead exploitation film drawing on middle class suburbia fear of biker gangs.  The gang terrorizes the town controlling it through fear and violence. The slowly escalates to the gang raping multiple young women (luckily not seen on screen).  This brings the gang on a collision course with Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin). What works so well in the film is sense of realism that Laughlin is going for.  The film never gives Billy super powers.  Yes, he’s tough as nails Ex-Green Beret but he can be hurt it never shows him as some sort of Chuck Norris style avenging angel.  Billy only wants to really be left along.  It’s only after the gang pushes him that he acts.  The film plays out set pieces in the way that one can see why Quentin Tarantino loves is so much.  There is a messiness to the set pieces.  No one gets in a clean hit, no action is smooth.  It gives the entire film and its genuinely thrilling third act a heft and weight that many lesser exploitation films just don’t have.

Though many think that Billy Jack is the original it is the sequel to Born Losers.  Picking up a few years after the events of Born Losers, we find Billy one half of a duo running a progressive school/halfway house.  This school/halfway house a safe haven for Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans teens, giving them a chance to find themselves.  This still feels like a fresh idea and an idea that many “watch dog” groups would come down on even today.  The school is run by Billy’s companion, Jean (Delores Taylor) who at this point becomes as much a central figure as Billy.  Laughlin and Taylor with this film begin the mythicalogicalization (Yes, it’s not a word, I know, but needed something) of Billy as a character.  In the sequel, Billy becomes a protector, not just a ward to these children and the school but the social justice warrior we would all want on our side.  The film smartly focuses on these injuctices and the political plights of the school rather than fisticuffs.  It’s not to say the film is inert.  Far from it, there is action but it’s at the service of the story.  Billy as with the first film tries to steer away from violence but unable to.  In Born Losers, Billy is unsure of the plight, not wanting to get involved.  Here he is fighting for his land, his people, these children against a rich dog food magnate and his vicious son.  Billy Jack plays out as both a crowd pleasing action film but does not play out as one would think of as a traditional happy ending.  It’s these final moments the films social message and action collide with great success.

Watching the two hour and fifty minute sequel The Trail of Billy Jack one honestly wonders if David Simon was inspired by the film for The Wire.  In every respect this third part in the series ups its stakes and widens its gaze.  Not just satisfied with creating another “revenge” film, they create a story that speaks to the times it was made during.  Talk of rampant corporate greed and collusion with the government.  Disenfranchised minorities further disenfranchised by police brutality and government’s discourse to further marginalize them.  Yes, there is nothing modern audiences can take away from this film. NOTHING. AT. ALL.  The film minus those leanings works as a great big messy epic that’s part court room drama, part action film, part political thriller, part social injustice critique all rolled up into the package that could only be a Billy Jack film.

The final film of this quadrilogy, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, devoid of action, pushes more toward the socially minded political potboilers of the era.  It’s no mistake that Frank Capra Jr. produced this entry into the series as it’s literally a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  The film goes as far as to take the Frank Capra (Sr.) classic’s filibuster finale.  The biggest hurdle to get over in the film is to believe that after the events of The Trial of Billy Jack (or the events in Billy Jack) that Billy would be allowed to fill in the remaining term of another Senator. The film as earnest and sincere as it is cynical much like Capra’s original.  The film definitely has the best villain of the series in the form of Senator Joseph Paine.  It helps that Paine is played by the indomitable E.G. Marshall.  Marshall is a perfect foil to Laughlin, facing off against one another in some of the series best scenes.  It should be noted that the film’s original 2 ½ hour running time has been cut by 40 minutes on this release and every home video release.  One’s hope of seeing the original director’s cut should be forewarned.  The film still works regardless of this giving the film an urgency that Trial at almost three hours did not have in large sections.

The Transfers

Born Losers transfer is problematic to say the least.  The film consistently has scratches and specks of dirt on it.  Time has not been kind to this 50 year old film.  There are moments where the transfer shines but for the most part it’s an average transfer with some basic restoration issues that would require a lot of time and effort to make into a beautiful transfer.

Billy Jack is a much better transfer than Born Losers. It’s only marginally better as there is still a lot of specks on the picture.  Though it looks as though better care has been taken with the sequel as for the most part the film looks good in High Definition.  There are moments where the film outright looks gorgeous but that’s the exception on this transfer and not the norm.  The transfer is definitely a jump up from the original’s.

The Trail of Billy Jack is remarkably better with the transfer having minimal issues.  Age hasn’t gotten the best of this film yet and manages to look beautiful and crisp during most of the film.  There are a few sections where the film does show its age with dirt hanging over the print they used.  By far and large this is a pretty nice transfer with good clarity, contrast and detail.

Billy Jack Goes to Washington is outright beautiful transfer and the best of the bunch.  There’s not a sight of dirt or scratches on this print.  The 2.39 anamorphic photography beautifully reproduced here.  If this was the level of transfer on all four this would be a flat-out amazing set.

NOTE: Again, this is more the material than the actual transfers themselves.  Short of a full-on 4K restoration Shout Factory looks to have done everything they could to bring out the best in these independently produced films.  I mention the Independent nature because often times the level of care for the prints in that era were less that optimum conditions.

The Extras

  • Audio Commentary With Tom Laughlin And Delores Taylor On All Four Films
  • Audio Commentary With Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, And Frank Laughlin On All Four Films
  • Theatrical Trailers

Laughlin is very informative on all eight tracks giving us a conversational insight to each of these films; how they came about, their development, the production and general anecdotes.  The best is what I would call the ‘family’ commentary.  Laughlin is joined by Dolores Taylor whom he refers to as “Dody” and their son Frank Laughlin.  It’s a relaxed, informative and all around delightful set of commentaries.  Wither talking Hell’s Angels on Born Losers to being very honest and unfiltered about Billy Jack goes to Washington and it’s failure at the box office Laughlin, Taylor and their son are always fun to listen to.  The insight that they all give gives is great and detailed.  The frank and often times funny exchanges between Laughling and Taylor about just how much of these films “stolen” is great.  Even when Laughlin talks spirituality and politics there is a very grounded point of view that never feels trite or glib. Laughlin and Taylor definitely love these films and are proud of them but also do not hold back on their critiques of their work.  Note these are not new tracks. The tracks were recorded before Laughlin’s health began to deteriorate.

The Bottom Shelf

Just to have the Billy Jack series in Blu-Ray is just flat out amazing.  Adding the commentaries across all three discs is a bonus.  Minus the troublesome transfers this set is gangbusters.  Recommended!

The Billy Jack: The Complete Collection from Shout Select is available now.

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