John Flynn’s tightly wound ROLLING THUNDER is probably the grandpappy of American revenge flicks and a second generation vetsploitation flick shortly following another Paul Schrader flick, TAXI DRIVER. Major Charlie Rane (William Devane) has finally been released from a Hanoi hell hole and is returning home after eight years of brutality. He can get by, barely, when he puts on a heroic facade while hiding behind his dark sun glasses. This helps him get through the welcome back and feting that the city does as it welcomes the troubled warrior. The closest thing he has to a friend is Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) who is in worse shape psychologically than the major. One returns to a fairly idyllic-if flawed-family and one returns to a broken home. Rane’s wife has moved on and his nine year old son doesn’t even remember him. He has come home to more pain though it does not affect him like it would have prior to his capture. Rane died in Hanoi and is a shell of a man in San Antonio. Vohden also died in Hanoi but he isn’t even a shell, he is more of a spectre. When shown with his family he is always on the outskirts, being talked at and not speaking much himself. These men were trained to do a job and that job is over. They’ve been suffering at the hands of their captors for years and all of a sudden they are back home and they can’t quite fit in.
Rane’s wife is going to leave him and take his son with her. The news makes little impact on the man except he tells her he didn’t want to hear it. Charlie doesn’t want to lose his son whom is the only person he has invested any feeling in building a relationship. He spends his days with his son when he can, when he can’t he works out, drinks, and sits unmoving for hours on end. He has frequent flashbacks. To top it off he has to realize that he will be losing his only human credential, his son.
But he doesn’t really need to worry about the pain of divorce and losing custody. A group of low life thieves have heard about some of the gifts San Antonio has given Charlie and they want $2500 worth of silver dollars. The money isn’t important but the nature of the event is vital. Rane slips back into P.O.W. mode and just recites his name, rank and serial number in response to every question. He endures beatings without emotion and is tortured without showing much pain. They even mutilate his hand (not a spoiler if you see the cover…) and he doesn’t make much sound. He is a tough son of a bitch and one of the thieves says what the viewer is thinking, “He’s crazy.” He is crazy. There is nothing going on that could be characterized as empathy, there isn’t even much that would lead one to believe there is understanding. Rane just seems to be an indifferent observer allowing things to unfold as they will. Then his wife and son show up. The boy leads them to the coins and the baddies shoot them dead and put some lead into Charlie and leave him for dead as well.
Charlie eventually recovers but now he is as scarred and disfigured physically as he is mentally. He has a prosthetic hook in place of his right hand and he teaches himself how to use it. Once he does he sharpens it… He then takes advantage of one of the few people left in his life, Linda, and she is slavishly loyal to him in the beginning. Once she realizes he is callously using her to lure out the men who killed his son she calls him out on it though she still wants to help. In a rare expression of human emotion Rane decides to leave her behind and turns to the only person who could possibly understand him, Johnny Vohden. The young vet is at home surrounded by his family and the mundane and he doesn’t care for it. He no longer understands or fits in. When the Major shows up Johnny again has some purpose. Devane and Jones do not talk much yet through attitude and facial expressions they are able communicate volumes. Rane tells Vohden that he found the men that killed his son-not the men that killed his wife or the men that took his hand, he was after the men who killed his son. The only thing that mattered was the boy. Vohden responds “I’ll just get my gear.” There is no moralizing, there is no debate, there are no questions-this is simply the way things must be.
They don their dress uniforms, gather their guns and head to the brothel where the gang feels at home. Vohden still refers to Rane as Major and asks for the plan. Plan’s pretty easy, go in and kill them all. The ensuing shootout is one of the spectacles of 70s action flicks. Well shot, well choreographed, efficient and totally brutal. Rane is cold as Vohden comes alive smiling and having a good time as they begin shotgunning bad guys in the whorehouse. The end is just as good as the moment Vohden grabs his gear. There is no moralizing, there is no reflection, that’s the way it had to be.
ROLLING THUNDER has many layers working in it. The disassociation of men returning home after years of pain, death and killing. The struggle to reintegrate themselves into a society that cannot understand them. The symbolic ineffectuality of the law and the cognitive dissonance between societal justice and the vets’ sense of justice. The film is painstakingly paced and well shot. The script has two hands at work and it shows, but Schrader’s mark is unmistakable. This is one of those films I can watch over and over again each time unpackaging it just a little bit more.
The Shout! Factory Blu-ray release looks great. The diner scene with Rane and Linda looks a bit odd with some faded horizontal lines moving down the screen but other than that the HD master is pretty fantastic with the right amount of grain intact. The Making of Rolling Thunder documentary is a must see as it involves both Devane and Jones and both screenwriters, Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould. The other features are the theatrical trailer, a TV spot, radio ads, and gallery. A great release from Shout! It’s a shame it has come mostly unheralded. Check this one out, you will not be disappointed.