While "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" never sounded like the most thrilling coming attraction of 1977, I expected a few more laughs and self-righteous outrages than the plodding, stuffy finished product, now at a trio of K-B theatres, has to offer.
Not that Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor have totally missed the old funnybone in the course of inserting those progressively insufferable characters, Billy Jack and Jean Roberts, into the screenplay of Frank Capra's 1939 rabble-rouser, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," nominally updated and rewritten to accomodate their own rabble-rousing formula.
One feels a tug in the right direction when Elmer Bernstein selects "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to underscore one of daughter's speeches as the newly appointed Senator Billy - a description of his pet project, a national camp for abused children.
When Billy asks, "How would you youthful, overwhelmingly nubile staff members chorus their approval "yeah!" shouts one and "All right!" cries another - one almost anticipates a production number in the tradition of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musicals. Alas, none materializes. Director Laughlin, alias T. C. frank, keeps the cast sitting around inflicting interminable speeches upon one another.
Only Delores Taylor could bring the appropriate note of doleful complacence to a construction like the following: "It's still the same old story, isn't it, Senator? As soon as someone tries to buck up against a big organization, the little guy just doesn't stand a chance, does he?" There will be no rest in high places when it's learned that "Billy Jack's Little Raiders are digging up some things on the whole nuclear program that are making people nervous, including people at the White House guys like to write a bill?" and his . . ." or that "The groundswell for Billy Jack is dangerous. Just let him link up with Nader or Gardner and he'd be unstoppable."
On the contrary, Laughlin and Taylor have virtually stopped themselves by running their act into the ground. Laughlin should have realized how superfluous it was for him to remake "Mr. Smith" literally. For all intents and purposes he had remade it after completing "Billy jack," which resurrected most of the impassioned virtues and sentimental, slightly hysterical defects of the Capra movie in an early '70s context.
Unlike its solemn sequels, "Billy Jack" even benefitted from leavening touches of humor in the Capra tradition.The film's success evidently prompted Laughlin and Taylor to elevate the characters of stalwart Billy and haggard, do-gooding Jean into pop culture sacred cows. After the sanctimonious excesses of "The Trial of Billy Jack" in 1975, there was nowhere for the series to go. It would have been more logical to establish a Church of Billy Jack than shoot another Billy jack movie.
Laughlin relies so heavily on the original plot and dialogue of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" that one may feel a little embarrassed on his behalf. It's obvious that he's used the Capra film as a crutch rather than an inspiration. If "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" isn't a word-for-word "adaptation" of the screenplay Sidney Buchman wrote for Capra, it's close enough to pose the question, Why not revive "Mr. Smith" itself?
Laughlin bloats the running time by tacking on certain Billy Jack speeches and shtiks, including one brief display of hapkido, inflicted on a gang of threatening blacks whose possibly disquieting racial makeup is blithely rationalized by pretending that the CIA or FBI must have wanted it that way.
I had been wondering how Billy Jack, who served time between "Billy Jack" and "The Trial of Billy Jack," could reach the Senate in the first place. Laughlin has an explanation for that: Billy is granted a full pardon by governor Dick Gautier, who appoints him to fill out the term of Kent Smith, a senator who seems to succumb to questioning by argumententative reporters. There's no explanation for Jean Roberts' amazing recovery from what appeared to be permanently crippling injuries in "Trial." Oh, well, you can't expect everything in a talky, static, derivative picture that seems to run on forever. Frank Capra Jr., the producer of "Billy Jack Goes to Washington," may be considered out of the running for this year's Honor Thy Father Award.