Rolling Thunder – DVD review

Rolling Thunder
DVD/Blu-Ray (Optimum Home Entertainment)
Released 31st January 2012

This near forgotten 1977 neo noir/’Nam vet revenge movie classic, co-written by Paul ”ËœTaxi Driver’ Schrader, gets a highly welcome re-release on DVD/Blu-Ray Double Play disc.

Gritty, raw, low budget (the picture was produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff’s notorious exploitation movie studio American International Pictures) and violent; Rolling Thunder (the operation title for the failed US Air Force’s 1965-1968 bombing campaign in Vietnam) retains its power to shock and awe.

1973. US Air force Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home from Vietnam to San Antonio, Texas. He and his friend, John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) have endured 8 years of unremitting physical and mental torture in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

Obviously, the adjustment for Rane to American everyday life is not going to be easy. His wife has fallen in love with another man, policeman Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll) and his son, whom Rane adores, no longer remembers him after nearly a decade’s absence. In Rane’s own mind, he is a walking dead man ”“ he expired the day he was taken prisoner.

Yet Rane cannot possibly conceive that his experiences as a POW are nothing compared to the tribulation he is about to confront on US soil. The town’s people have greeted Rane as a hero, giving him an all red Cadillac convertible (a highly appropriate colour considering what is to follow) and two thousand dollars in silver dollars one for each day of his imprisonment, plus one for luck. The gifts are presented by a self-professed Rane ”Ëœgroupie’, attractive but damaged honky tonk girl Linda (Linda Forchet).
Unfortunately for Rane and his family, a very bad man known as Texan (James Best, probably best known for his role as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes Of Hazzard TV show) and his gang of equally unscrupulous hombres, coordinated by Automatic Slim (an ice cold Luke Askew), decide to rob the Major.

During the robbery Rane’s wife and child are killed and he loses his right hand. Seemingly even more subdued and distant than when he returned, Rane makes plans for his own style of justice, with the unwitting help of Linda, who now loves him and offers some hope of salvation, and eventually the enthusiastic aid of Vohden.

Directed with precision and without overtly drawing attention to his style, John Flynn (who previously shot the great 1973 crime picture The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall and Robert Ryan, in his last screen role) maintains a steely atmosphere of menace and foreboding throughout. Co-writer Heywood Gould perhaps brings a deeper pathos to Rane’s predicament than one can imagine was there within Paul Schrader’s initial broad characterisation of the Major as a homicidal racist (Schrader was originally set to direct the movie).
The excellent washed out colour photography of Jordan Cronenweth (who would lens Ken Russell’s Altered States, Cutter’s Way and Blade Runner), which highlights the colour of Rane’s car while emphasizing the inky blankness in the Rane family home, even before tragedy strikes, heightens the fatalistic Film Noir ambience of the piece.

The performances Flynn elicits from the entire cast are superb. Devane is particularly compelling, subtlety conveying the suppressed rage that his character tries to mask behind his ubiquitous aviator sunglasses. Rane has learnt that to master and conquer torture one must “learn to love the rope”, but cannot grasp the one chance that he has for some real measure of contentment with Linda. The strength of will and determination that sustained Rane in captivity, will threaten to destroy him in America.

Linda Forchet elevates her character from the cliché good girl gone bad role, with her clear insight and evident rapport with Devane. Tommy Lee Jones, in his second feature film, is perceptibly a star in waiting (the smile that flashes across his normally sombre face before battle commences is chilling) and James ”ËœSheriff Rosco P. Coltrane’ Best should have definitely played more venal villains in his career.

There is so much more to Rolling Thunder than the fact that it is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films and that he named his short-lived distribution company after the picture. This is no mere Death Wish style vengeance movie, but a thoughtful meditation upon the effects and consequences of violence and violent retribution.

Though the print is not of absolutely pristine quality, Rolling Thunder is well served with DVD extras. There is an insightful and engaging full audio commentary with co-writer Heywood Gould, moderated by writer Roy Frumkes. The theatrical trailer comes with an Eli ”ËœHostel’ Roth introduction and commentary, and thankfully, in its original form. An exclusive and moving interview with former actress Linda Haynes rounds off the package.

Release date 30th January 2012

1 COMMENT

  1. I prefer Dennis Hopper’s seminal wig-out ‘TRACKS’ myself. ‘Combat Shock’ is good for a few bloody chuckles.

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