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A classic, stylish, macho revenge film

With a screenplay by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Heywood Gould (The Boys from Brazil), Rolling Thunder is a rock-solid '70s vigilante action-thriller that deserves more respect and attention. Like most notable '70s thrillers, Rolling Thunder does require patience as the film steadily builds, with director John Flynn (Best Seller, Lock Up) showing more interest in character drama than outright action. The film succeeds thanks to the excellent performances, fascinating characters, absorbing dialogue, and gripping moments of violence, with Flynn ensuring the picture is a consistently enthralling sit between the shootouts. Indeed, it is not merely a cheap exploitation movie, nor does it feel like another worthless Death Wish knockoff - in fact, it confidently surpasses the landmark Charles Bronson classic. Unsurprisingly, Rolling Thunder ranks among Quentin Tarantino's favourite movies and is one of his major cinematic influences.


In 1973, U.S. Air Force Major Charlie Rane (William Devane) returns to his hometown of San Antonio, along with a few of his fellow soldiers, including Master Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones). Rane spent seven years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hanoi, and his Texas home is no longer the same: his son (Jordan Gerler) does not remember him, while his wife (Lisa Blake Richards) is now engaged to a local policeman (Lawrason Driscoll) with no plans to call off the wedding. With no choice but to stoically accept his wife's decision, he concentrates on building a meaningful relationship with his son while a Texan belle named Linda (Linda Haynes) begins making advances towards him. At Rane's homecoming ceremony, he receives a Cadillac and a case of silver dollars, but this gift makes him a target for a group of border outlaws. During a home invasion, The Texan (James Best), Automatic Slim (Luke Askew), T-Bird (Charles Escamilla), and Melio (Pete Ortega) steal the silver dollars and shoot Rane's family, leaving them for dead. Although Rane survives, he refuses to cooperate with law enforcement because he wants to hunt the gang down personally by following them into Mexico, and he enlists Vohden's help to dole out justice.

The Vietnam War angle is glorified window dressing, as the story is not actually about Rane's POW traumas or the impact of his experiences while readjusting to life back in Texas. However, it does give Rane and Vohden tangible character depth, as both are mentally withdrawn and weary with ostensibly little to live for, and their decision to risk their lives in the climactic shootout seems blasรฉ since they feel they have nothing to lose. Additionally, Rane's family life - with an unfaithful wife and a son who does not remember him - viscerally reflects the experiences of Vietnam War veterans, while his flashbacks to his torture in Hanoi during the home invasion add an interesting angle to the sequence. The thematic relevance elevates Rolling Thunder above the ordinary, with excellent performances across the board contributing to the movie's power. Gould's rewrites of Schrader's original screenplay added monologues and more characterisation for Rane, though many of the monologues were cut, with Devane instead opting for a terse, stoic performance reminiscent of Steve McQueen. Devane is superb here, saying more with expressions than words as he looks calm despite palpable anger and frustration boiling inside. Meanwhile, Jones (who appears uncharacteristically young here) is equally terrific, with both actors capably demonstrating the mental scars of their Vietnam experience.


Flynn takes his time in the picture's first act, dedicating the initial half-hour to pure drama and character development as Rane arrives home and begins readjusting before the violence breaks out. Although the home invasion is not shocking by modern standards, the sequence disturbed test audiences, with 20th Century Fox losing the distribution rights after insisting on re-editing to soften the film's impact. Maintaining Flynn's vision is critical to Rolling Thunder's success as it feels like the work of a genuine auteur instead of a diluted, mainstream studio product. Flynn orchestrates the action with a sure hand, never holding back in depicting graphic violence but ensuring the movie does not feel sadistic or mean-spirited. The stylish cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) is consistently eye-catching, with the lighting and composition making the most of the dingy, dimly-lit locations. Indeed, Rolling Thunder does not look like a cheap or nasty straight-to-video action offering, as it exhibits incredible visual gravitas that belies the meagre $2 million budget. The climax is eerily similar to Taxi Driver, with both films involving a brutal shootout at a brothel. However, character motivations differ despite Charlie Rane and Travis Bickle being Vietnam War veterans.

At its heart, Rolling Thunder is a pure vigilante film that follows a formulaic structure, with a wronged man hunting down the people responsible for his family's death. However, it is also a tragic story about a man who tries to do the right thing by serving his country but winds up losing everything he holds dear, which resonates after the film concludes. Furthermore, the first-rate execution ensures the movie is more memorable than more standard-order action flicks, with a traumatised Vietnam veteran as the central character and competent filmmaking across the board. It does not carry the same thematic poignancy as 1982's First Blood, but it's still a classic manly movie with plenty to recommend. Those who enjoy films like Death Wish and Taxi Driver should seek this one out.

7.8/10
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Added by PvtCaboose91
6 days ago on 10 June 2024 08:05