A seldom-seen classic from the late 1970's, John Flynn's Rolling Thunder was almost the directorial debut of Paul Schrader, before he left the project over script differences. It's easy to see his mark on the film's story, however, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver, with its protagonist – a troubled Vietnam veteran – tooling up and preparing to bring vengeance against those who have crossed him. The difference here is that revenge for Major Charles Rane (William Devane) is deeply personal. He returns to his home town and his family after seven years in a POW camp along with fellow soldier Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones), but in his absence things have changed. His wife confesses that she has been seeing police officer Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll) and his son, who was an infant when he left, barely recognises his father.
Things get worse for Rane when he is given a box of silver dollars at a homecoming ceremony to mark his return – a box that attracts the attention of some local crooks who turn up at his home demanding that he hand over the cash. However, they find that Rane is not a man who submits easily, and the film shows us how his experiences in the Vietnamese prison camp have shaped him into a more hardened character, able to control his emotions and withstand the most unendurable pain. In an extraordinary scene, Rane responds to Cliff's questions about what it was like to undergo regular torture with a demonstration; encouraging Cliff to bind his arms tightly with rope and pull them behind his back, Rane forces him to pull harder and harder, the veins popping in his skull and sweat pouring off his face, until the shocked Cliff pulls away. Rane uses that same resolve to stay strong when the crooks after his money mangle his hand in the garbage disposal and shoot his wife and child in front of him.
Devane surely gives the performance of his career in this film. Upright and deliberate in his actions, he's every inch the all-American soldier, but he also shows us how war has left scars on his soul in a stunning display of wound-up intensity. When he is given a hook to replace his missing right hand, there's every risk that Rane could turn into a comic book avenger, but Devane underplays effectively and keeps the character rooted in reality. As he methodically cuts down his shotgun and sharpens the point of his hook before hitting the road in search of the men who killed his family, you know he means business. Rolling Thunder is very much Devane's film, but other actors lend crucial support. Linda Haynes brings an endearing sweetness to her role as the waitress who ditches her job to join Rane on his quest – little realising what he has in store for her – while Tommy lee Jones excels in only his second feature. Jones has little to do for much of the movie but he has a sense of slow-burning menace that's compelling to observe, and his small smile when Rane asks him to pick up his guns again is telling.
Rolling Thunder is a lean and direct piece of work and John Flynn keeps it moving with little flair but plenty of straightforward craftsmanship. The dark and seedy cinematography from Jordan Cronenweth fits the mood perfectly, and during the fight scenes or shootouts, the action is cleanly staged and edited. In particular, the climactic gunfight in a Mexican whorehouse is brilliantly mounted, with shades of Peckinpah in the way Flynn lets it play out. This set-piece gives Rolling Thunder a spectacular, cathartic ending, as two men damaged by war burst back into life by doing what they do best. "What the fuck are you doing?" one of the prostitutes asks Johnny as he loads his gun;"I'm gonna kill a bunch of people" he replies with a quiet satisfaction.
Heywood Gould's commentary on the film he was hired to re-write is engaging and chatty, but more focused on anecdotes than facts. Linda Hayne's gives a short interview, while Eli Roth (along with Quentin Tarantino, a big fan) commentates over the film's trailer.
Rolling Thunder is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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