Retro Review: ‘Rolling Thunder’

For all the years I have watched movies I have never understood why bad guys mess with a war hero and are surprised when said war hero uses their battle experience to get his revenge. This premise has served as the groundwork for a number of films over the years, but few have taken such a unique approach to it as the 1977cult classic Rolling Thunder. This controversial film survived studio changes and multiple recuts before finally becoming the film we know it as today.

Returning home after torture and captivity as a POW in Vietnam, Major Charles Rane is hailed as a hometown hero. While that is all well and good, his private life is a different matter as his experiences have left him with deep mental scars that have not even begun to heal. On top of that his wife and son have seemingly moved on with a new man poised to takeover his role as husband and father. Any hope of rebuilding his life are shattered when a band of home invaders grind his hand off in a garbage disposal and gun down his family. For a man like Rane the only path forward is to have his revenge. Joined by, Linda, a bartender he is growing closer to and later his former battle buddy Seargent Vohden (played by a young Tommy Lee Jones), the now hook-handed war hero sets out on the road to hunt down the men who took everything from him.

The screenplay was the brainchild of the legendary Paul Schrader who left a massive imprint on 70’s cinema with his work on films like Taxi Driver and The Yakuza. Though, another writer in Heywood Gould would take a pass on Schrader’s script his meditative but gritty style pervades throughout Rolling Thunder. It is a hardboiled and violent revenge tale, but on a deeper level this story is about a troubled man stoically battling his demons. William Devane does a brilliant job bringing a complex character like Major Rane to life, on the surface he is calm with everything under control but it does not take much to see the raging monster within he keeps on a leash. Director John Flynn approaches this movie with a slow, cold and atmospheric style. The core of the movie is built around Major Rane and his relationship with Linda as they travel through Mexico giving us a look at his mindset. That being said there is definitely a slow-burning tension throughout. Every so often we are treated a crisp bloody action scene, with everything slowly but steadily building towards a hard-hitting and unforgettable climactic shoot-out.

Over the years the reputation of Rolling Thunder has only grown. Quentin Tarantino even named his former Rolling Thunder Pictures company after this film. It has become a favorite among the grindhouse crowd not just for its realistic violence but also its bleak tone and no-holds-barred look at PTSD. This is the kind of film that once seen is not easily forgotten.