Billy Jack: The Complete Collection - Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Blu-ray / Media Reviews' started by Michael Scott, Aug 10, 2017.

  1. Michael Scott

    Michael Scott Moderator / Reviewer
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    Billy Jack: The Complete Collection


    Movie: :2.5stars:
    Video: :4stars:
    Audio: :4stars:
    Extras: :2stars:
    Final Score: :4stars:


    [​IMG] Movie
    Ahhh, I have fond memories of being a 6 year old boy and looking over my (much) older brother’s shoulders as they would go through the Billy Jack films every time they hit TV. I was a bit too young to grow up with Billy Jack and his one man army routine, but I’ve seen them several times over the years with the differing DVD releases (many of which had the horrible 4x3 cropped full screen transfers too). Billy Jack was really just the hippie/pacifist version of Chuck Norris (before the Chuck Norris craze in the late 70s). Tom Laughlin was a high skilled Hapkido expert, but also a rabid hippie, pacifist and social activist back in the late 50s and early 60s. He started out having to cave to studio heads to get his franchise started and made 4.5 films before having to give up the ghost. I say 4.5 (4 included in this set), being that he was halfway through The Return of Billy Jack in 1986 when an accident forced the production to a halt and Laughlin was never able to get the film off the floor again.

    The Born Losers :2.5stars:
    The Born Losers is the least connected film to the franchise, and for good reason. Tom Laughlin spent 16 years trying to get the script for Billy Jack to a studio head who would greenlight the project, but no one seemed to want to touch a film about hippies, peaceful native Americans, and bigoted white cops. However, biker gangs and evil scummy villains like that were ALL the rage at the time. So, Laughlin caved in to the studio heads and adapted a modified version of his script and changed it to fit the craze of a biker gang gone awry, shoehorning his character of Billy Jack (Laughlin himself) into the picture. It’s a bit goofy and more than a bit dated, but it does mark the beginning of his 4 film franchise.

    Up above Big Rock, California, ex Green Beret Billy Jack has returned home from the Vietnam war a changed man. He is sick of the violence and has become a vehement “disagreer” of sorts to the war effort. Wanting to get back to his simple life as a horse wrangler he has to come to the reality that there are no more horses to wrangle. His land is being foreclosed on, and the only thing he can do to stem the blood flow is to sell his jeep.

    While he’s in town selling the jeep, a young college girl by the name of Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James, who also wrote the screenplay with Laughlin) is preyed upon by a gang of bikers. These bikers are scum of the earth, not just satisfied to terrorizing the town of Big Rock, they follow Vicky out and coax her into hanging out with them, where is assaulted along with several other girls. Now the D.A. wants to prosecute the biker gang, but no one is willing to come forward except Vicky. Everyone else is terrorized and beaten into submission by gang leader Danny (Jeremy Slate) and his vicious crew of predators. Well, that can only mean one thing. Billy Jack is sick and tired of seeing people oppressed, and it’s time to Karate chop his way through the gang until this is all hashed out.

    The Born Losers is scummy and grungy at its core. The 1960s era gogo boots and bikini clad damsels in distress gave me a chuckle, but the villains are so over that top that in this day and age they’re pretty laughable. Laughlin infused some of the racial and social commentary that he was saving for Billy Jack into The Born Losers, but this is really just a biker gang revenge story with Laughlin punching, kicking and shooting his way through them until they pay for their crimes. The story is paper thin, and most of the time we’re just supposed to feel rage for the evil that is committed by Danny and his gang, then cheer when Billy Jack comes in to wipe the floor with them.

    Billy Jack :3stars:
    Now Billy Jack was the pet project of Tom Laughlin. The Born Losers was just his foot in the door, and Billy Jack more of a reboot with the initial character designs intact than an actual sequel to The Born Losers. The half Cherokee, half white war hero turned protector of the innocent is back again. This time he’s living on the reservation and taking down redneck bigots and poachers with impunity. The film was written 16 years or so prior by Laughlin and his wife (and co-star) Delores Taylor) when Tom saw how the Native Americans were treated in his wife’s home town. Much like Lucas, Tom had to put most of the risk on his own head for the film, and even after the moderate success of The Born Losers, Warner wasn’t about to give him a wide marketing budget when it was still considered a highly risky project. Well, Billy Jack ended up doing great, so Warner gave Laughlin’s movie the distribution it deserved and ended up making over $40 million by the end of the year (and being filmed on less than $1 million).

    Billy Jack is a pacifist by nature, but when his clansmen are being mistreated by the bigoted and racist white folks of the outlying towns near the reservation, he gets a bit peeved. Laughlin weaves in a myriad of sub stories dealing with the socio-political climate of the time, right with all of the anti-war protesting going on. We’ve got hippy girls, communes, chants against law and authority, all sorts of drugged out “peace and love” type ceremonies and more bigoted “Detective Andy” type characters than you can shake a stick at. So when a young daughter of a police deputy (who just so happens to be a poacher as well) takes up refuge in Billy Jack’s care, the white sherrif’s deputies are going to do whatever it takes to get her back, no matter the legal consequences.

    Billy Jack is overly long and rather unfocused if you ask me. The first half of the film meanders and wanders about the place, giving us little tidbits about Billy Jack, the hippie school teacher Jean (his real life wife Delores Taylor), the young girl, a psychopathic deputy, and classic racism. The first ½ drags so much that the only really good part of that bit is where Billy Jack goes all Chuck Norris on the bigots in the park. A scene that was actually choreographed and stunt directed by Tom Laughlin’s own Hapkido master Bong Soo Han. Little tidbit, Tom Laughilng does 99% of his own stunts in the movies, except for the famous “Billy Jack kick” where he kicks someone with a lightning fast crescent kick in that scene. Laughlin reportedly could pull the kick off easily, he just lacked the pinpoint precision to have his foot stop mere millimeter’s from the face, so Bong Soo Han stepped in as his stunt double for that take.

    Ironically the film seems a bit of a dichotomy. Laughlin was adamant about pacifism and non violence in his interviews and script notes, but he Billy Jack gives some epic beat downs as the patron saint of hippies. It’s also ironic that Billy Jack opened up right during the same period as Dirty Harry, another legendary franchise starter. Dirty Harry actually opened up with a LOT of criticism about violence and political aggravation, but those same critics who were so angered by Dirty Harry LOVED Billy Jack. Calling it revolutionary and amazing. Again, not exactly hard to see why, as this was in a time period when cops and authority were seen as war mongers and monsters, while anti-establishment outlaws like Billy Jack were lauded as heroes (despite their obvious similarities otherwise).

    [​IMG] The Trial of Billy Jack :2stars:
    The Trial of Billy Jack has been admitted by Laughlin and Taylor to be an “angry” film that was backlash against instances like the Kent University shooting. The story picks up with Jean (Delores Taylor) being interviewed in a hospital bed after a shooting at her hippie commune…..err...”Freedom School”. The story is told in two different flashbacks, one relating to the trial of her lover Billy Jack for the manslaughter of Bernard (the ending of Billy Jack), where he is sentenced to 4 years in jail for voluntary manslaughter. The second happens after the trial, where she tells the events that led up to the shooting at the Freedom School. It seems that after Billy Jack went to jail for those four years, the Freedom School started gaining fame and notoriety due to the trial.

    Finally the school gets so big they have to move (to a converted military base no less) where they fund the no school through protest marches, sales of Billy Jack’s protest songs, marching band contests (I’m assuming a bake sale or two, I’m sure there’s some laced brownies in there somewhere), and they are able to start up their own radio station. A radio station that focuses on mucking up dirt about the establishment, and yelling about how the “man” is raping the land, and the system destroying the common man (your average fringe cult movement stuff). They get sooooooooo good at this that the feds start getting nervous and end up wire tapping the school and getting read for some sort of takeover if necessary.

    A little bit of a fast forward, and Billy Jack is out of the joint and reunited with Jean once more. Billy’s return is triumphant and magnificent to his adoring subjects (only slightly sarcastic), but it turns to be a bit of a trial for the hapkido wielding half breed. When a couple of young hikers get lost in the mountains, Billy Jack goes out to rescue them , and tries to bring the most injured one to a hospital, where the doctor refuses to work on the Native American for his race. The poor guy is even charged with trespassing, while the big wigs around town hold debauched parties on Native American land without consequence. Furious at the goings on, Billy Jack goes up to the mountains to “find himslef” in a great spirit journey. A journey that will once again pit him against the bigots, the monsters and the evils of “the man” once more.

    The Trial of Billy Jack is easily the worst of the series. It’s an unwieldy mess of a movie that reeks of self indulgent narcissism and an anger that is ridiculously out of place even in 1974. Tom and Dolores both admit that the movie was a bit self indulgent and overly long, but they say they left it as it was being that it was true to their feelings at the time. Sadly, their feelings are a giant muddled puddle with very little coherence. Too many plot lines are introduced to the film, and the hilariously narcissistic self adoration that Tom has for his Billy Jack character borders on “so bad it’s almost good”. Billy Jack is practically WORSHIPED by the Freedom School natives, and the characterization of everyone who doesn’t believe that the “man” is out to get you is a racist bigot. There’s an opening courtroom scene where the whole courtroom is literally screaming and cheering Billy Jack on like a rabid pack of dogs and the big bad white lawyers are nastily twirling their mustaches. I mean, we have a federal government so terrified of a grass roots movement by a hippie commune that they’re ready to come in there and slaughter everyone in plain daylights because they fear the rebound on their authori-tay.

    Trial is the first movie in the Billy Jack Franchise that really bombed theatrical. It lost a bundle of money and proves that just because you had a solid idea with your first couple of films doesn’t mean you’re invincible. The film was meant to be strong message against the riots and shootings happening during the late 60s and very early 70s, but by the time 1974 rolled around, this anger feels misplaced and pretty everyone agreed that it was a rant against a nonexistent target.

    Billy Jack Goes to Washington :2.5stars:
    Billy Jack Goes to Washington is probably the most repeatable and decent movie of the series to the average film goer. The reason for this is because the movie is really not a Billy Jack movie at all, but a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Billy Jack as the main character! Yup, there’s not major spiritual enlightenment, here. No huge Hapkido fight scenes, and no ranting about the man as much. Instead it’s a near beat for beat remake of Jimmy Stuart’s classic film with an issue about Nuclear Power as the central focus.

    Billy Jack is able to run for senator after the governor pardons him and appoints him as a 2 month to go senator with ulterior motives. The crazed and dedicated man has got the young vote, the minority vote, and he’ll rub off on these politician’s to the point where they will look good being near him and rubbing elbows. It doesn’t matter that he’s a figure head and will be replaced in 2 months with the upcoming election, but he’s such a newbie at the politics game that he will be easy to control (at least that is their logic. Who in their right might would give a senatorial seat to a known trouble maker like Billy Jack? He’s the definition of uncontrollable!).

    Billy Jack Goes to Washington is up there with some of the biggest known flops of all time. The movie was never actually released to theaters (or at least any theaters that we know of) and was summarily just shelved for quite a few years before coming out on home video. According to Tom and Dolores, the film was scrapped by the studio after Washington asked the studio heads to shuffle it under the rug as they feared reprisal for their own nuclear power dealings that were going on right then. I can’t say whether that’s true, or whether the Laughlin’s were a bit conspiratorial (just watch The Trial of Billy Jack if you think they’re not conspiracy theorists), but I can say without a doubt that fans of the original three Billy Jack films would have been REALLY disappointed as Laughlin took the character so far in the opposite direction that you almost couldn’t recognize him.

    There’s actually some decent name actors in this film, especially since the Billy Jack films are known for using non actors (his wife and daughter plus other relatives and friends) , and we get some strong performances from Pat Obrien, E.G. Marshall, and Sam Wannamaker. They’re given some decent content, but sadly Dolores Taylor’s role is cut way back for this one. Even the fight scenes are almost completely gone. There’s one small fight early on, but it’s cut very short and Tom Laughlin’s Hapkido abilities are left on the back burner. Billy Jack Goes to Washington is the film that famously ended the franchise, and even though Tom tried to bring it back 9 years later, fate had other ideas and this would have to be his last on screen performance as Billy Jack.

    Not Rated by the MPAA

    Video: :4stars:
    [​IMG] The Born Losers :2.5stars:

    The Born Losers looks the roughest of the Billy Jack films, with speckles and print damage all over the place. The amber 70s tone is thick and heavy, with a very soft looking image for the most part. The biggest problem comes from the inconsistency of the encode. Certain shots are rather blurry and filled with print damage, while others look really clean and clear (look at the scene where Billy Jack opens up a can on the three bikers trying to kidnap Vicky). Colors are a bit orangey and soft, but they're decently saturated. Film grain is all over the place, from being nice and tight in the cleaner sequences, while other shots show the image swimming in the thick 70s era low budget film grain. It's a decent enough transfer for a low budget film shot on an $800,000 budget, and I can see no hints or press releases stating that Shout Factory was able to remaster the aging films, so I can't really blame them for the rough nature of the disc.

    Billy Jack :3.5stars:
    Billy Jack seems to have been in much better shape due to the increased budget that the success of The Born Losers afforded Laughlin, and while it's not a perfect encode (there's some mild compression artifacts) it's certainly going to please fans. Colors are warm and vibrant, with sharp reds (and overly obvious orange paint for blood), skin tones look fairly natural, and contrast is well balanced. Blacks are strong and show excellent shadow detail, but there is some crush going on and the softish 70s film stock definitely is not as sharp as other films of the day and age. Honestly, I've only seen Billy Jack once before and that was on DVD, so I can't compare to the IMAGE Entertainment disc from a few years back, but from what I can see on screenshots and comparing to this disc I'd say that they're pretty similar.

    The Trial of Billy Jack :3.5stars:
    The Trial of Billy Jack looks pretty similar to Billy Jack, in that it shows some good quality imagery, although it does look like it's from a rather crusty older master. Print damage is noticeable, but never TOO noticeable. Colors are bright and well saturated, while blacks are decent enough. There's some crush and washed out shots in the caves, but it's an overall decent looking transfer all around. Reds and blues really pop off the screen, and the earthy desert tones are naturally good to look at. The real PROBLEM here is that the film is cropped. Yes, Trial was actually cropped from from 2.35:1 scope down to 1.78:1 fullscreen. From what I have been able to research and talk with industry sources is that this was the master they were given, and no additional cropping was done by Shout Factory. I'm suspicious that this comes from the Laughlin estate directly, and that's why they're using the master they are, but it's very frustrating in this day and age to have a film cropped this badly.

    Billy Jack Goes to Washington :3.5stars:

    Out of all the Billy Jack films, Billy Jack Goes to Washington is the cleanest and clearest of them all. It's got some nice pop with natural 70s colors (reds and oranges specifically), but the fine detail is much better in comparison. The grain is less obtrusive and the whole thing feels more polished and clean from the get go. Blacks still suffer some crush, and there's a distinct softness that is reminiscent of the 70s, but a very pleasing image indeed. Once again we have a problem though. I thought I was going nuts, but there is an ever so slight video stutter going on which makes the whole image look like it's juddering every few seconds. Motion is slightly jerky and it really started to feel odd. The reason this review actually took so long was because I had to source my old DVDs from storage and compare the two, as well as talk to a few industry insiders to see if it was source related at all. There's no 100% confirmation, but this one looks to be encode related.

    Audio: :4stars:
    [​IMG] The Born Losers: :2.5stars:

    Shout has given The Born Losers it's original Mono track in a lossless DTS-HD MA encode, and the track is a little bit better than the video encode. Dialog is the mainstay of the simple 1 channel track, and that varies from scene to scene (and sometimes even DURING a single scene). For the most part dialog is intact, but often enough the vocals dip into "hard to hear" range and then shift back to full power in a split second. Ambient effects such as the revolver gunfire and the roaring of the motorcycles is full and clear, but there's a sort of "thick" feeling to the track that is a bit hard to put my finger on. Again, EXTREMELY low budget film that is showing its age.

    Billy Jack :3.5stars:
    Instead of a Mono track, Billy Jack has a competently done Stereo track in DTS-HD MA lossless from Shout Factory. the dialog is crisp and clear, with none of the volume levels that The Born Losers was plagued with. The track isn't very spacious and tends to be a bit boxy, but it's an overall solid sounding track. Gunshots ring true and other ambient effects are well balanced with the dialog, from punches and kicks of Billy Jack's Hapkido martial arts, to the screeching tires along the road. The track does feel a bit thin on the high end of the spectrum (especially with screams), but it's a solid enough track for sure.

    The Trial of Billy Jack :3.5stars:
    The DTS-HD MA Mono track is capable, and does about as well as Billy Jack does. The dialog is well replicated, and generally clear and clean, but there is some harshness on the voices that lurks just on the "edge" of your ears (so to speak). The track is a bit boxy, but quite capable, especially when Billy Jack undergoes his spirit journey in the second half. There's some minor elements that kicks the subs on in the backed in LFE, but overall it's a fairly mild and low budget Mono track.

    Billy Jack Goes to Washington :3.5stars:
    Once again, The DTS-HD MA mono track for the final movie in the series mirrors the rest pretty well. Dialog is strong and clean, and the hustle and bustle of the senate floor and political joints do well with a mild sense of spaciousness and directionality. LFE is almost nonexistant, naturally, but I did hear a bump or two here and there. There's not a whole lot of separation going on, but the dialog is not too harsh, and actually feels the most refined.

    Extras: :2stars:
    [​IMG] Each Film Contains

    • Audio Commentary with Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
    • Audio Commentary with Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor and Frank Laughlin
    • Theatrical Trailer
    • Still Galleries (On the Born Losers, Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack)

    Final Score: :4stars:

    Billy Jack: The Complete Collection is a dream come true for fans of the hokey 70s era martial arts films, but this set is unfortunately bearer of a few flaws that will certainly frustrate fans. The Born Losers and Billy Jack are very good (considering their source elements) but the stutter issue on Billy Jack Goes to Washington and the cropped transfer for The Trial of Billy Jack leaves me hesitant to unabashedly recommend the set for long time fans. The movies themselves are also going to appeal to a niche audience of people who grew up in the 70s and loved the pacifist Karate butt kicker version of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry more than your average moviegoer. Shout does good work normally, and I honestly can't say whether some of these issues were source (or licensing in the case of the cropped transfer being that Shout is not in the habit of cropping titles on their own) or encode related, so I will have to give it a hesitant "for the fans".

    Technical Specifications:

    Starring: Tom Laughlin, Elizabeth James, Clark Howat, Delores Taylor, E.G. Marshall
    Directed by: Tom Laughlin
    Written by: Elizabeth James / Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor / Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor / Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor /
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 AVC / 1.78:1 AVC / 1.78: AVC / 2.35:1 AVC
    Audio: English: DTS-HD MA Mono / DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo / DTS-HD MA Mono / DTS-HD MA Mono
    Studio: Shout Factory
    Rated: PG / PG / PG / NR
    Runtime: 113 Minutes / 114 Minutes / 170 Minutes / 114 Minutes
    Blu-ray Release Date: July 25th, 2017

    Recommendation: For the Fans
    #1 Michael Scott, Aug 10, 2017
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2017
    tripplej likes this.
  2. tripplej

    tripplej AV Enthusiast

    Jul 13, 2017
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    Thanks for the review. Never heard of these movies but I am interested in checking them out on amazon prime or netflix.

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