A motorcycle gang is revving it up and having fun until they have a near accident with some guy in his car. They bust his windows out and beat him up, chasing him through a small downtown until the guy ends up in a bar, wanting to call the police for help. The owner of the bar tells him to get lost but a patron there helps out. His name, Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin). Billy ends up fighting the gang and shooting one of them. The cops show up and he gets the book thrown at him for using a firearm while the gang gets their wrists slapped. Meanwhile, a young woman is out tooling on her motorcycle when she gets followed and harassed by the gang and eventually assaulted. The police come and it’s her word against theirs. It will go to trial but only if she testifies. She decides to run, instead, and the gang pursues her. She comes across Billy Jack, who takes her in to protect her. This sets the two of them on a collision course for a deadly and fatal conflict with the biker gang.
The Born Losers was the first of the Billy Jack movies and it’s also probably the least-known of the four films. If I understand correctly, Laughlin had the script for Billy Jack ready but not enough investors were interested, so they created a smaller story to introduce Billy. They set it in the burgeoning world of low-budget biker movies that were popular at the time. This did the trick because soon they were off making their masterpiece. How good is this movie on its own? Well, it’s one of the best of the AIP biker flicks, and one of the best of that subgenre, no doubt. Laughlin displays his tough-guy charisma and shows off a character in Billy Jack that is complicated and intriguing. Elizabeth James, who co-stars as the assaulted woman Vicky who Billy Jack is trying to protect, wrote the film under an assumed name (she also wrote Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and some other films). She is terrific in her role, combining waifish innocence with a world-weary soul. You’re never quite sure if she’s as tough as she portrays herself with her big words and attitude because she’s equally vulnerable in other scenes. She’s just as complicated and interesting as Billy. The action is all there; Billy Jack chops a few dudes down and kicks a few others, and he gets his own ass handed to him at least once. This still feels like the “Black Sheep” of the series because it doesn’t have the hippies or that whole peace-and-love vibe in conflict with the real, violent world, thing that goes on in the other films. Billy Jack isn’t concerned about being peaceful here; violence is just fine by him. He tries to avoid it, but if he has to, he’ll kick a guy’s teeth in. But the bare bones of the series is laid out here, the courage and strength and conflicts within Billy, as well as the strong and complicated supporting cast. Even the villains aren’t two-dimensional. There are moments where you laugh along with their chicanery. All that turns to blood-curdling horror by the end of the picture.
This is a damned good film. It works on many levels, as an exploitation flick, as an examination of the outlaw culture at the time, as a look into the confused world of the youth in the late 60s, and as an action epic. It also works to set the table for the movies that are to come, even as it stands on its own. If you’re a fan of this series and haven’t seen it yet, you’ll find a lot to love here. If you have no idea about the legend of Billy Jack, might as well start with the first one.