Pop Stand: Ode to Billy Jack -- the original

News item: Actor Keanu Reeves and Danny DeVito's production company, Jersey Films ("Erin Brockovich"), are negotiating with Tom Laughlin for the rights to remake the 1971 cult classic "Billy Jack," which Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in.

Keanu Reeves as the new Billy Jack? No one can fill those cowboy boots.

It isn't as if the star of "The Matrix" and "Speed" hasn't proven his box-office pull as an action hero, and his unwavering facial expression neatly parallels Tom Laughlin's. Also, the timing couldn't be better to revive a 30-year-old righteous revenge flick in peacenik's clothing; the studio could target both the hawks and the doves of post-9/11 America.

Laughlin, now 70, is recovering from cancer. He and Delores Taylor -- his wife, producer and co-star -- made a couple of sequels, but haven't been prominent in the film business for more than 15 years. Yet they still live off the proceeds of Billy Jack Enterprises, which grew out of what is arguably the most successful independent film of all time: Made for $350,000, "Billy Jack" sold more than 60 million tickets, grossing $100 million at the box office, which Laughlin claims would be $260 million in today's dollars, eclipsing "The Blair Witch Project."

Laughlin and Taylor have the right to do whatever they want, of course: After a tussle with studio backers at Warner Bros. over some risky (for the times) scenes, including a poke at Richard Nixon, the two won the right to distribute the film themselves -- and profit from it. But some originals just shouldn't be tampered with -- especially those that inspired a generation of sheltered adolescents to crumple their Hot Tamales boxes in outrage.

Stunned and sniffling, we strode out of our local movie houses determined to help Billy save the world from racist redneck bullies, a k a The Establishment -- and equally bent on buying the theme-song 45, "One Tin Soldier." (Though this was the band Coven's sole hit, try to find someone who owned a fringed vest during that year who can't finish the verse "Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend . . . .")

Before Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme ever took off their socks, Billy Jack -- a half-white, half-Indian, ex-Green Beret karate expert -- was busting the chops of an entire small-town posse in his bare feet. He danced in the desert in a groovy white-fringed ensemble, soaking up divine visions from a rattlensnake bite. He saved wild mustangs and runaway pregnant teens from abusive men. He listened patiently as the kids of the Freedom School performed excruciatingly sincere folk songs and street theater, and their teacher, Jean (Taylor, a ringer for Sara Jane Olson) implored him to control his anger.

Even the habitues of the "Billy Jack" chat room (go to http://www.billyjack.com ) have to admit that, viewed today, the film suffers from a lack of focus, forced dialogue and biased bad guys drawn with broader stereotypes than those they were accused of perpetrating. But Laughlin understood what all the major studios did not -- kids want to look up to someone who stands for all the right things, and still gets to lose his temper and wreak havoc on a regular basis.

Billy Jack believed in both peace and the right to "go berserk" in the face of injustice: "Now, which is it gonna be?" he asks Bernard, the Corvette-drivin', Indian-baitin' rapist and son of Billy Jack's wealthy rancher nemesis, after Bernard taunts Indian kids in an ice-cream parlor by pouring "whitening" flour over them. "Drive your car in the lake or get a dislocated elbow?"

Laughlin also pulled off something that all the studio heads from then and now combined couldn't manage: In a time when indie films were very difficult to make and still harder to promote to mainstream audiences, Laughlin cast mostly non-professionals -- including his children and their babysitter -- and shot on a shoestring. For the first time, we sat in theaters and saw people like us -- or like people we'd seen on the street -- on the big screen, and felt instant allegiance.

"So many people can remember where they first saw 'Billy Jack' and who they saw it with," Laughlin said by phone last week from his Santa Barbara home. "[Miramax head] Harvey Weinstein told me he drove up to Santa Clara to see it because he was trying to woo some girl named Becky, and that it's the only film he can do that with."

Laughlin says he still gets letters every week from people who say that the movie changed their lives. When the powerful talent agency CAA held a recent meeting to discuss handling the new project, any fears that the idea was stale disappeared when several people in the room each quoted a different line from the original, 31-year-old "Billy Jack."

No karate film since has made that kind of sudden impact. But, Laughlin says, "Billy Jack" ain't no karate film: "People forget there's only one big fight scene in the whole movie. This is an all-around love story about a bunch of misfits. The reject-oddball element is crucial, which these other guys have never figured out."

Laughlin said four studios are bidding on the project. He assured me that he agrees that any attempt at a faithful remake would be "a disaster," and that the only deal he'll cut is one in which the old Billy Jack passes on his lore to a young disciple.

I still don't know if I'll be able to bring myself to see a new "Billy Jack" movie. But I don't have a say in the matter. To borrow Billy Jack's most notorious quote, if Laughlin decides to take his right foot and whop me on that side of my gauze-filtered memory bank, there's not a damn thing I'm gonna be able to do about it.

-- Kristin Tillotson is at ktillotson@startribune.com .

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