The last time we saw BILLY JACK , he was being hauled off to jail – and raking in about 60 million bucks at the box office! The eponymous hero of the surprise 1973 indie hit struck a chord with young audiences disillusioned with the Establishment’s endless wars and crushing their hobnail boots on the throats of dissidents (like I always say, the more things change…), and cheered as Billy Jack struck karate blows and Hapkido kicks in the cause of freedom. A sequel was inevitable, with Tom Laughlin returning as star/director/co-writer (along with wife Delores Taylor, who plays Jean) in a film loaded with political and spiritual philosophies designed to open those young moviegoers’ hearts and minds (not to mention wallets!).
But while BILLY JACK (and its predecessor, BORN LOSERS ) are fun flicks, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK suffers from that dreaded disease many filmmakers are prone to – pretentiousness. I didn’t totally dislike the movie, it has its moments, but at a running time of almost three hours, it just goes on too damn long. There are important points to be made, no question (comparing the slaughter of innocent civilians in Vietnam to the slaughter of protesting college students on campuses such as Kent State), but those points surely could’ve been made in two hours. Laughlin and Taylor’s screenplay just seems to meander on and on, and though the two are sincere in their effort to Make A Statement, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK would have benefitted from tighter editing (even though FIVE editors are credited on IMDB!).
Visually, the film’s quite impressive, with much of it shot in John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley by DP Jack Marta. The scenes dealing with Billy’s “vision quest” are gorgeous, and the Cave of the Dead scene is a Cormanesque fever dream. This is where THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK comes to life; when we get into the Freedom School’s dealing with interference from state and Federal authorities, the plight of Native Americans, etc etc, things tend to bog down. Director Laughlin should have told his editors to get their scissors out to make his point more concise, especially some of the lame student songs, but since it’s his daughter Teresa singing most of them, well… nepotism wins out!
There’s some action, but it’s not enough to satisfy the action lover in me. Laughlin’s Billy Jack still kicks some righteous ass, especially when teamed with his Hapkido mentor Master Bong Soo Han , but again it’s too few and far between, as the Freedom School vs Establishment storyline takes up way too much time. The film does too much pondering and hammering the viewer over the head with it’s message to succeed, and suffers for it. That message is important to be sure, and still resonates today, but THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK finds Laughlin taking himself much too seriously as a filmmaker with Something To Say. The movie found an audience though, hungry for a champion of the oppressed, and Billy Jack was a box office sensation once again. The third and final chapter, which we’ll take a look at in a few days, finds Billy Jack up against his toughest foe… Washington D.C.!!