"Billy Jack 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection"
DVD Review
by Kevin Carr

    DVD EXPERIENCE: **** (out of 5 stars)

    Tom Laughlin as BILLY JACK
    Delores Taylor as JEAN ROBERTS

    Rated PG
    Studio: Billy Jack Enterprises/Ventura Distribution

    Directed by: T.C. Frank
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I have a lot of respect for independent filmmakers. Having done the work myself, I know how hard it is to organize the entire production, do all the work and be the motivational force for people. When you have a resounding success, that’s a great thing as well.

More than three decades ago, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor traveled to California in search of a dream. That dream was to make movies, and they had no idea of the success they’d face. They managed to scrape together the dough to make “Born Losers,” a biker action flick that introduced the world to Billy Jack.

This led to the film “Billy Jack” a few years later. Made for only a half million, it scored $35 million at the box office. It was a true independent success in a time when grass-roots (and sometimes bizarre) indies took the box office by storm, like “Pink Flamingoes” and “Deep Throat.” However, the Billy Jack films managed to have a message (sometimes too much, unfortunately) and at least inspire people.

Presented in a five-disc set, the Billy Jack 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection presents all four Billy Jack movies, as well as a fifth bonus disc. Each film comes with the original release commentary (when appropriate) as well as a newly recorded one. The film transfers aren’t terribly clean, but the movie’s there and looks pretty good, especially for the 1969 American International release of “Born Losers.”

The bonus disc runs a little thin, but it’s got a decent sampling of information about the series. Special features include a mini-documentary of the Billy Jack films, which is more like a narrated slide show. There’s a trivia quiz that covers the series, original TV ads, a photo gallery and DVD-ROM features that include a book excerpt, web site information and footage that allows you to cut together your own fight scene and enter a contest for it at www.BillyJack.com.

BORN LOSERS (***1/2 stars)
The first of the Billy Jack films, and easily the best. “Born Losers” falls into the biker film category more than the modern western. I’ve seen my fair share of biker films from the 60s (mostly courtesy of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”), and while “Born Losers” has all of the markings of its contemporaries, it’s still a pretty good story. Billy Jack (Laughlin) is a half-breed Indian who comes to the aid of a woman (Elizabeth James) who is being terrorized by a biker gang. The bikers can be a little weird (and really gay in one scene), but otherwise make great villains. Billy Jack kicks plenty of butt, and the film has some neat little twists and turns to keep things interesting – and an ending the really has some guts.

BILLY JACK (*** stars)
This film was the one that broke all the records. It was also the one that started the preaching of the films. Bringing Laughlin’s wife Delores as the main character Jean Roberts to replace Elizabeth James from the first film, she’s a pacifist who runs a progressive school on Billy Jack’s Indian reservation. The powers that be in the town nearby hate the Indians and harass them every chance they get. Howard Hessman makes an early appearance as a teacher at the school in some of the bizarrely funny scenes of improvisation by the students and the townspeople. A little heavy-handed with the message, this film still holds onto the brutality of the revenge style established in “Born Losers.”

This film is by far the most preachy of all the Billy Jack movies. Focusing only lightly on the trial of Billy Jack after he was arrested in the previous film, it is more about a political statement of corrupt politicians. Made in the wake of Kent State, this Billy Jack film shows the students in a revolt as they try to root out corruption and support Communism. Again, focusing heavily on the progressive school run by Jean Roberts, “The Trial of Billy Jack” sets up the students as martyrs to another group of racist townspeople. Billy Jack plays a lesser role to Jean, and while he experiences his vision quest in search of a balance between pacifism and ass-kicking, he’s not the focus. And that hurts the film a bit.

Never theatrically released, “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” presents itself as two films. On one hand, it is a political thriller, mirroring itself after “All the President’s Men.” On the other hand, it is a homage (or rip-off, however you look at it) of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Here, Billy Jack is brought into the Senate of the U.S. to help strengthen Indian relationship – and to be a pawn in the building of a nuclear power plant. This film was a nice shift from the previous three Billy Jack movies in that it gave Billy a different focus. He didn’t just kick off his shoes to kick people in the head. Instead, he has to use his savvy on the Senate floor to reclaim his good name. Still preachy in many parts, this Billy Jack film at least provides a nice shift back to the title character as a focus.

Specifications: 5.1 Digital Dolby Soundtrack. Original Mono Soundtrack. Widescreen (1.85:1).

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