Tag Archive: Billy Jack


Review by C.J. Bunce

From Hong Kong to the U.S. and Australia to Uganda, Australian director Serge Ou and writer Grady Hendrix track the scope of the Hong Kong kung fu movie industry and its pop culture influence on the world in the documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, now streaming this month on Netflix.  Splicing interviews with kung fu legends of the past with new discussions with martial artists and actors influenced by them, Ou offers up a surprisingly rich look at how and why kung fu movies gained an international following that continues to this day via Jackie Chan comedies, the Matrix movies (with a sequel due in theaters next year), and new television series like Wu Assassins and Iron Fist. 

Beneath what is in essence an overview of the genre is a smart mixture of social and cultural commentary on a global phenomenon centered on an artform mixing athleticism, dance, and grace.  Kung fu made its way to American audiences with Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, and into millions of homes via the Kung Fu series.  This was paralleled by Bruce Lee movies and lesser films (they call them Bruce-sploitation) from China and U.S. studios, direct-to-video crotch-kicking and “squirrel-grabbing” action on VHS tapes in video stores, heroines leading the way as a sub-genre, eventually moving to black and inner city audiences embracing the culture, starting with martial artist and actor Jim Kelly (who co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon), re-emerging later as an influence on hip hop music.  The genre got even bigger boosts with Jackie Chan heavy-stunt comedies, followed by The Matrix and the Academy Awards arrival of the genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Chinese co-productions with other nations, and actors of Chinese background in the mainstream outside of Asia would eventually come along.

Viewers meet (or revisit) early kung fu icons Cheng Pei-Pei and Sammo Hung in new interviews, along with Billy Banks, who would turn the genre into his own fortune via the creation of the Tae Bo workout, early American female kung fu star Cynthia Rothrock, martial artist Richard Norton, plus from the 21st century shows, Iron Fist actor Jessica Henwick, Wu Assassins actor JuJu Chan, Doctor Strange actor Scott Adkins, and Marvel stuntwoman and choreographer Amy Johnston, among others.  It’s all interspersed with great action sequences and other clips from more than 100 films.  A theme underscoring much of kung fu movie history is a distinct lack of safety standards, with more than one participant in the documentary stressing that Hong Kong kung fu movies couldn’t be made anywhere else for that reason.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

One hundred years ago today, March 9, 1918, mystery writer Mickey Spillane was born.  To celebrate his centenary crime novelist Max Allan Collins finalized two of Spillane’s unpublished works, and they will be published later this month for the first time together in one volume as The Last Stand.  Spillane was a mentor and friend of Collins, a crime novelist in his own right, most recently known for his Quarry novels, adapted into a Cinemax TV series.  Collins put the final touches on both a “lost” 1950s classic Spillane crime story novella with an appropriately two-fisted title, A Bullet for Satisfaction, and Spillane’s final unpublished novel from 2006, The Last Stand, a contemporary adventure tale set on a Native American reservation.  Collins includes a detailed introduction to the new volume recounting Spillane’s influence on the post-World War II paperback surge, on crime novels, and on films and books being made to this day derived from his legendary investigator Mike Hammer, including James Bond, John Shaft, Dirty Harry Callahan, Billy Jack, Jack Bauer, and Jack Reacher.

Two tough men:  One like you’d expect in a Spillane crime novel, a cop who is too tough for his own good and gets thrown off the force, fighting his way back.  The other, a seasoned pilot, someone out of a Louis L’Amour novel who lands in the middle of an Indiana Jones story, complete with the search for ancient artifacts and the guts to fight the toughest guy in town.

A Bullet for Satisfaction, from Spillane’s earlier years, is exactly what you want from a crime mystery, a dreary town with corrupt politicians, mob thugs, a few damsels in distress, and plenty of knives and guns and punches.  Ed McBain, James M. Cain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Donald E. Westlake–if you’ve read any of these authors, you’ll want to delve into Spillane’s works, and Satisfaction is a good start.

The Last Stand couldn’t be more different than Satisfaction.  It begins with an airplane crash and a pilot of vintage planes named Joe Gillian, marooned in the desert with a few candy bars and some cans of beer.  A set-in-his-ways ex-military pilot, he finds himself rescued in the desert and soon becomes blood-brother with Sequoia Pete, who takes him to his reservation.  As a treasure hunt ensues with global implications, a local thug jealous of Joe marks him for death.  Joe doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to get out of town as the FBI drop in, seemingly to keep the peace, but a lot more is going on out in this tiny desert village.  The Last Stand is heavy on banter between Pete and Joe–the relationship is very close to the sheriff and the Native American deputy in Hell or High Water, but “White-Eyes” Joe is not remotely as bigoted and unlikeable as Jeff Bridge’s sheriff in that movie.

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Django Unchained - Still A

By C.J. Bunce

How does a Western get nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2013? As recently as two years ago the remake of True Grit was nominated for Best Picture and nine other nominations—but did not net a single win.  But would it have been nominated if it hadn’t been directed by the quirky directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen?  Five years earlier Brokeback Mountain, a film with a Western—or at least a cowboy– theme was also nominated for Best Picture, winning three of eight nominations.  It took director Ang Lee and a completely non-Western plot for that to happen.  Then you have to go back to Unforgiven in 1992, which actually won Best Picture and four of nine of its nominations, to find the last major, critically acclaimed Western.

What made Unforgiven win?  Certainly by supplying one of the two most popular Western actors of all time as the film’s lead helped, even if it was one of his more bland performances, with Clint Eastwood also serving as director. (Yes, John Wayne still remains the #1 most popular Western actor ever).  But more importantly, like the few notable Westerns since, it had a very non-standard plot for a Western.  With its gunfighter-turns-farmer-turns-gunfighter-one-last-time story, it was basically a dark sequel to John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman.  You could keep going—back to Dances with Wolves in 1990, an example of the “epic Western” which seemed to reward the director and acting efforts of rising star Kevin Costner more than the movie as a Western genre masterpiece.  Or back to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid in 1969, probably the last classic era Western to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, winning five awards, including a key win for the script by William Goldman.  Then go back to the also-quirky Cat Ballou in 1965 starring Jane Fonda—the rare Western notable for featuring a female lead.

Going back even further gets you into the classic era of Westerns, and throws you into the strange era of “epic Westerns” getting recognized by the Academy.  These were movies that in hindsight are really not as well done as many smaller pictures of the period, but their huge all-star casts and expensive sets made the films hard to ignore, such as How the West Was Won, The Alamo, and Giant.  Surprisingly you have to look back to the adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s Hondo starring John Wayne in 1953 to get back to the era of the “hero Western” as recipient of an Academy nod, a film up there with Shane and High Noon as successful and admired Westerns receiving acclaim by the Academy.

Schultz and Django

But if you put aside the classic Western and look at what has been selected by the Academy since the 1960s it makes a lot of sense that Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained is not only a Best Picture nominee this year, but a real contender for the win.  Set in the South two years before the Civil War, the film follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) whose past owners lead him to meet up with German-born, dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz’s next target is the wanted-dead-or-alive Brittle brothers, and only Django can help him literally recognize his bounty.  Schultz serves as mentor in survival and pursuit skills for Django who is squarely focused on rescuing long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  The search ultimately leads to a more complicated than necessary scheme to buy Broomhilda from infamous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), if only his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) will not stand in the way.

So what is the formula for a successful Western in the 21st century and why should Django Unchained make the cut?

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