Charles (William Devane) was a Major for the US Army during the Vietnam war. He spent eight years in a Hanoi prison during his service, but never once buckled. And so, his return to American soil is a hero’s one for the onlookers gathered at the airport as his plane hits the ground. Among these, waiting to greet Charles and his best friend, fellow soldier Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones), are his wife and son.
Things get steadily worse though. First, Charles puts his son to bed and is disheartened to realise he’s unrecognisable to the little fellow. Then the wife sits Charles down and drops a bombshell of her own: she’s moved on with her life and found herself another bloke. It can’t help that the guy in question, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll), is a condescending twerp.
Could Charles’ life back home get any shittier? Sadly, yes.
While preoccupied with preventing his wife from filing for divorce and keeping his estranged family together, Charles lets his guard slip when he attends a public ceremony where beautiful department store representative Linda (Linda Haynes) presents him with a Cadillac car and briefcase filled with silver dollars as reward for services to his country.
Had he been more aware, he may have realised that this very public ladling of riches was drawing the attention of some very unsavoury thieves...
Shortly after enjoying an innocent afternoon drink with fan Linda, Charles returns home to find the group of Texan robbers lying in wait. Fortunately eight years of beatings and endurance tests (highlighted in monochrome flashbacks) have left Charles tougher than ever, and even upon his return he spends his time working out in a bid to never be the victim ever again: despite their physical force, Charles refuses to tell the thugs where his silver dollars are hidden.
Alas, when his wife and son return minutes later, the little one is quick to reveal the whereabouts of the booty. This doesn’t help either of them any and they’re gunned down in cold blood regardless.
With his hand mangled in a food dispenser and a bullet shot to his belly, Charles is left for dead by the hoodlums. Big mistake on their part.
Linda keeps vigil at his hospital bedside while Charles recuperates, and before long he’s out of his wheelchair and back on his feet with revenge in mind.
Fashioning a hook in place of his destroyed hand, Charles is as lean and mean as ever as he takes to his yacht, making in the direction of Texas with murderous intent. Thankfully, he has loyal Linda and militarily skilled mate Johnny for help.
Devane has made a career out of portraying slimeballs on screen. Here he’s cast against type and impresses as a believable, warm character pushed via life’s cruellest blows into surviving the only way he knows how.
Early scenes demonstrate how he’s considered and polite even in the face of adversity. At one point he gently warns Cliff, "I hope you don’t mind me saying this to you, but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t call my kid a runt". It’s said with an air of convincing ambiguity that helps the viewer smile warmly in Charles’ direction, and Cliff recoil in silent apprehension.
As the film, a slow-burning affair for its first half, progresses, it becomes more apparent that Charles’ stoic nature and subsequent alienation is instrumental to his actions in the final half. The "less is more" approach to the action, favouring characterisation like many of the better films from the 1970s, works well and allows room for the screenplay’s subtexts – by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould – to really hit home.
Speaking of Schrader, comparisons to Charles and the Travis Bickle character from his earlier screenplay TAXI DRIVER are inevitable. As are comparisons to DEATH WISH. But ROLLING THUNDER has poise and a steadily mounted pay-off all of its own, harnessed by a great central performance from Devane that lifts this above most other revenge flicks of its era.
A film revered by Quentin Tarantino so much that he named his movie distribution company after it, director John Flynn’s ROLLING THUNDER has gained near-mythical status over the years partly due to its unavailability. When it finally emerged on US DVD at the beginning of 2011, it was in the guise of a barebones MGM on-demand DVD-R. The reception from fans was mixed.
Well, Optimum Home Entertainment are now releasing ROLLING THUNDER in the UK as a DVD/blu-ray double-disc combo pack, as part of their esteemed Studio Canal range. With extras.
Only the DVD was made available for review purposes.
It’s great to see ROLLING THUNDER finally surface on UK DVD. From the moment the MGM lion roars into life, quickly followed by the American International logo, there’s a warm feeling about getting to view this old favourite on a legit release after all these years.
The film is presented uncut with a 15 certificate rating, in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions and looks good for its age. Grain is evident but not too heavily, while colours and flesh-tones maintain a healthily authentic look throughout. Blacks are a little faded, but this is without doubt the best the film has ever looked.
English audio is provided in LPCM mono and is a very solid, consistent and clean offering indeed. Unfortunately there are no optional subtitles present on the DVD.
The disc’s main menu page is a stylishly minimalistic, animated affair. It leads into a static scene-selection menu split across two pages which affords access to the film via 12 chapters.
Extras begin with an audio commentary track recorded by Gould, with assistance from STREET TRASH director and huge fan Roy Frumkes.
Deleted footage, locations, themes and shooting anecdotes are all covered with equal detail and good humour. Frumkes is a likeable lead, while Gould exhibits a fine memory for a film that’s well over three decades old.
Also enjoyable is a recently recorded video interview with Haynes. This 10-minute affair is produced by the consistently good Red Shirt Pictures and finds the actress (also known to SGM readers for her appearances in the likes of COFFY and STRANGE BEHAVIOUR) looking tanned and well. She talks with candour about how she ran away from home at the age of 16, got married and moved to Hollywood – where she was stopped in the street with the offer of acting classes. The rest, as they say, is history ... and Linda graciously gives us a brief run-through of her career, accompanied by welcome clips and poster artwork along the way.
From there, the film’s original theatrical trailer offers plenty of typical 1970s grit and cheese. Eli Roth (HOSTEL) is on hand to provide an introduction, along with an enthusiastic but rather redundant commentary track over the 2minute trailer. The trailer is windowboxed and rough-looking.
For those who’d prefer to watch the trailer without Roth’s involvement, we’re treated to a 16x9 rendition of it with the original mono soundtrack intact.
A 34-second US TV spot is even more salacious, with its voiceover’s breathless statement of "they take his arm, his family and ... his soul". Beautiful stuff.
ROLLING THUNDER looks and sounds its best on this new release. It can be ordered online at a nice price, and has some interesting extras (repeated on each disc) to complement the excellent main feature.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by StudioCanal|
|Region 2 PAL|
|see main review|