John Flynn’s ROLLING THUNDER was scripted by Paul Schrader, who had just done Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, a much more lauded film, but like this one, it also deals with a mentally unstable Vietnam War vet and the bloodshed he’s catapulted into on U.S. soil. It’s ironic that a film which inspired the name for Quentin Tarantino’s short-lived distribution arm (Rolling Thunder Pictures) and stars one of Hollywood’s most recognizable veteran actors (Tommy Lee Jones) took so damn long to make its DVD debut when MGM released it as part of their MOD (manufactured on demand) “Limited Edition Collection” in 2011. Thankfully, Shout! Factory has licensed the cult favorite for this Blu-ray edition, and have adorned it with the supplements it deserves.
In 1973, Air Force Major Charles Rane (the criminally underrated William Devane, FAMILY PLOT) returns to his home in Texas after being a decorated Vietnam War veteran and spending eight years in a prison camp. Rane is celebrated as a hero in his hometown, given an honorary reception as well as a fancy Cadillac convertible and a suitcase stacked with over 2000 silver dollars which represent the number of days he spent as a POW. But Rane also learns the crushing news that his happy home has been broken up; after his long absence, his wife (Lisa Richards) has fallen in love with another man and his son, though unconditionally loving towards him, doesn’t remember his dad and now has to get reacquainted with him amidst the parents’ impending separation.
With Rane spending most of his hours working out, drinking beer, vegetating or having flashbacks to his POW nightmare, his newest conflict arrives when a bunch of low-lives invade his home, planning to take off with the 2000+ in silver dollars (which Rane refuses to reveal the whereabouts of). A sleazy Texan (James Best of THE KILLER SHREWS and “Dukes of Hazzard” fame), another loathsome cretin named Automatic Slim (Luke Askew, EASY RIDER, ANGEL UNCHAINED) and a couple of burly Mexicans threaten Rane for the loot, killing off his wife and son and severing his hand in the kitchen sink garbage disposal. Left for dead by these heartless bastards, Rane quickly exits his hospital bed, customizes his new hook hand apparatus, takes up with a pretty blonde barmaid (Linda Haynes, HUMAN EXPERIMENTS) and recruits his old war buddy Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones) to drive to Mexico and exact sweet revenge.
ROLLING THUNDER was originally intended to be released by Fox, but reportedly due to its level of violence, it was passed off to Sam Arkoff and American International Pictures (AIP). With all the revenge/vigilante action pics and post-Nam war vet dramas seen during the 1970s, this one had gone lost in the shuffle upon its release, not being nearly as popular as it should be. But, with good reason, it’s gathered quite the cult following to this day. Most of the first half of the picture is a character-driven affair, with Devane terrific as the Major who is now a shell of a man, a damaged individual who, because of years of torture and imprisonment, is pretty much resistant to pain (as exampled by the bodily mutilation he faces at home, and the unaffected emotion at the loss of his family). Devane conveys the role with limited dialog, relying more on facial expressions (which is not easy given a character mostly in an impassive state) and physical attributes. Haynes (who drive-in movie addicts will recognize from LATITUDE ZERO and COFFY) is also good as the divorced waitress who has a self-described “groupie” fascination with Rane; she’s an attractive gal who’s been around the block and has had her fair share of bad relationships, and her allegiance translates into accomplice and companion, although he proves useless as far as displaying any affection towards her. Jones, though given limited screen time, is effective in an early role, another vet who is also affected but in a different manner; the tedium of his peaceful family environment is enough reason for him to exit the dining table and join his buddy Rane for a shotgun killing spree as nonchalantly as if they were going bowling. During the climax when Rane and Johnny dress in their uniforms and infiltrate a Mexican bordello, he’s seen calmly deadpanning to a hooker (Cassie Yates, CONVOY), “I'm going to kill a bunch of people”, when asked what he’s about to do with a bedside shotgun.
With the novelty of the main character having a sharpened hook where his arm once was, ROLLING THUNDER has its fair share of violence, but it’s actually pretty restrained, with the explosive brutality spread out and bursting within key scenes, adding to the momentum that builds up to its Peckinpah-worthy climax. But it can be described as a thinking man’s revenge picture (with one foot in the grindhouse) and is quintessential 1970s cult cinema. Leisurely paced but with plenty of meat and potatoes within, kudos should not only go to the cast and screenwriters Schrader and Heywood Gould, but also director John Flynn (THE OUTFIT) and editor Frank P. Keller, who juxtaposes black and white footage of Rane being tortured in prison camp with his isolation and torment at home, making for a remarkable effect. Barry De Vorzon (who had already composed two AIP drive-in flicks: DILLINGER and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW) provides the appropriately harrowing score. Strong acting support comes from familiar actors Dabney Coleman (TOOTSIE) as an army psychiatrist, Paul A. Partain (Franklin from the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) and Lawrason Driscoll (GRAY LADY DOWN) as the law officer who won over Rane’s wife and also has sights on avenging her death.
As mentioned, MGM had released ROLLING THUNDER on DVD as part of its MOD (manufactured on demand) “Limited Edition Collection” collection in 2011 and in 2012, it was released on both DVD and Blu-ray in the United Kingdom. MGM’s HD master looks fantastic as presented on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release, which is 1080p High Definition in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (with anamorphic enhancement). With a significant amount of low-lit cinematography as responsible, there is some grain present in a few scenes, but most of the show looks excellent, especially when compared to the dark and murky old VHS and laserdisc transfers, and even the previous MOD DVD which this looks significantly better than. Colors are vivid, and daytime and outdoor scenes now have new life, with detail being sharp throughout. The English DTD-HD Master Mono audio is clear and distinct throughout, and optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Shout! Factory has produced an excellent new featurette, “The Making of Rolling Thunder” (21:49), which covers a lot of ground in the time allotted, and it features interviews with stars Devane (who describes the film as a “Hollywood revenge picture”) and Jones, screenwriters Schrader and Gould (who did a number of re-writes on Schrader's original script and was called on to the set) and stunt coordinator Billy Burton. The participants give their personal views on the film, it's fine director and its characters, and Devane and Jones praise each other’s performances. Burton addresses the climax and its bloody bullet effects, a scene done without real stuntman on hand, and Schrader mentions how the tone of his original script (written several years before its production year) was changed. Also, Gould mentions a deleted scene featuring a far more graphic hand mutilation which was removed when it didn’t sit well at an early screening (it would be great if that could be dug up!). The original theatrical trailer and TV spot are included (both are narrated by Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson, who did the voiceover on a number of trailers for AIP in the mid 1970s), as well as four different radio spots and a still gallery. (George R. Reis)
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