Thursday, May 3, 2012

The 31 Day Movie Challenge - Day 5 - THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974)

- Rated PG but probably would be rated R by today's standards for some fairly strong violence.
- Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Teresa Kelly
- Written by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor (under the names Frank & Teresa Christina)
- Directed by Tom Laughlin (under the name Frank Laughlin
- Running time: 2hrs 53min... SHEESH!

(The 31 Day Movie Challenge was proposed to me by fellow film critic Jessie Hoheisel (from superawesomemovieblog). We each chose 30 films for each other to review for the month of May. The first film chosen will be from 1970. The second film from 1971... and so on. The last day will be a film from 2000. I accepted the challenge!)

I saw the first BILLY JACK 3 times.  Once when I was about 7 with my dad on TV, then about 15 years ago I watched it again cause I didn't remember it too much, and again last week to refresh myself.  In that movie, Billy Jack is a crusader who fights for young teens who can't defend themselves.  Mainly hippies.  Even though he kicks ass, he considers himself a peaceful man.  It's kind of preachy, but it's cheesy B-grade fun.  Now, 3 years later, pretty much every significant character returns for this epic of a sequel.

Shot in glorious widescreen, the movie starts with beautiful helicopter shots of the Arizona desert, as the camera swoops through valleys and canyons.  Then it shifts to a hospital room where Jean (head of the Freedom school of the first film and this one) tells a reporter her story.  At first I thought maybe she was talking about the first movie, but no, it's this new story, which is told entirely in flashback.  The first one ended with the school being overrun by jerk cops and Billy Jack taken into custody.

For the first portion of the movie, Billy Jack is on trial for involuntary man slaughter and is found guilty.  After serving 5 years, he is released to find that Jean has formed another school with many of the same kids and new ones as well.  The school is pretty much a commune, with hippies singing and talking about how much society sucks.  The place was built on Indian land which the Government wants to use for hunting.  They legally take the land from the Indians, but it doesn't mean anything to Indian law.  So they threaten Government officials to not hunt on their land or else...   This sets in motion a series of conflicts, as the students protest and the police attack them, with Billy coming to the rescue.  Also, there's about 40 minutes or so that has Billy taking a spiritual journey to find his "guide".

As you can see, this movie is loaded with tons of stuff, and I haven't even covered everything.  The fact that Laughlin himself thinks that his story deserves 3 hours of the viewer's time is beyond egotistical.  Even though the messages are important (yeah, I get it.  Discrimination is a bad thing) I don't think anyone should be subjected to countless endless sermons.  At least the last movie balanced the preachiness with some crazy action.  But I would say there is only about 10 minutes of action here, and that leaves 2 hrs and 40 minutes of bullshit!  This movie felt like it was over 5 hours long!  Fuck!

I'll say this.  I like Laughlin's calm demeanor (kind of like what Chuck Norris did a few years later) and the sparse action sequences are fun (in a cheesy way), but the rest of the film is nearly unwatchable.  Giving the majority of screen time to actress Delores Taylor (who plays Jean) was a gargantuan mistake.  She has the acting ability of a low rent pornstar.  And since she's not even appealing to look at (she's was in her late 30's but looks like she was 55) it's even worse!  Her acting and most of the rest of the cast reminded me of the kind of performances that you would see in a 1950's informational video.  The acting is that bad!

The movie is so preachy that it became unintentionally funny.  And during the "dramatic climax" where police officers are shooting at innocent students, I found myself laughing hysterically as kids were being blown away in slow motion.  Everything is overwrought here.  And the attempt to expand the story and make it epic seems wholly unnecessary.  Why are we in the snow covered mountains watching Billy Jack ski?  Who cares?!?  And the speeches!  Oh, the speeches!  It seemed like the movie would stop every 15 minutes so a character (mostly Jean) could make a 5 minute sermon on the good of man or some shit like that.  And that extended drug induced sequence where Billy Jack must find himself spiritually as he ends up talking with a blue version of himself?  Just nuts!

On one hand, I admire the audacity Tom Laughlin had to attempt something so ridiculously ambitious.  But on the other hand, I think he was out of his noggin' if he thought his self important ideals would make a compelling movie.  Ideals are fine.  But they don't need to be forced down anyone's throat.  He should have cut most of that out and put some more fighting in.  At least then it could have been fun.  But as it stands, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK is one of those colossal failures that needs to be seen to be believed.

* (out of ****)

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