Billy Jack (1971) is among the first films to feature a troubled Vietnam War veteran. Or is it really he who is troubled? Perhaps society itself is poisoned with racism and violence and, by contrast, the veteran (Billy Jack) exudes a Zen-like serenity, flipping into a karate-chopping whirlwind only when necessary, when the Law itself is corrupt… man… Yes, this film has problems.
Starring, co-written and directed by Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack is a contiguous series of contradictions. We wait for those Jekyll and Hyde moments, when Billy is pushed too far and then out fly the feet. If the Incredible Hulk was transmuted to a 1960s-era commune, given a “mixed race” Navajo background, and let loose on bands of bigots—well, you get the drift. A lot of it has to do with anger management.
This film achieved cult status through the unrelenting ambition and somewhat stunted vision of its creator, Tom Laughlin. (If ever independent film is looking for a hero, look no further than Laughlin. He’s the real thing. He took it all the way, against all odds.)
‘Stunted vision?’ Yes. The film seeks to illuminate a long list of prevalent societal ills—but it does with such cartoonish eruptions of violence, self-reverential, half-baked philosophies, and stock, monochrome characters that you can only slowly shake your head in dull fascination. Tom Laughlin was the Tommy Wiseau of his day. So bad that it’s truly inspiring and worthy of preservation.
Billy Jack: “They tell me I’m supposed to control my bad temper, but when I see what you’ve done here, I just go berserk!” Yeah, well, if he didn’t have a few issues to work out, there wouldn’t have been this terrifically mundane film—so aggressively unapologetic in its appeal to our more refined judgment that it brings a small smile to your face.
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