Sometimes movies that have a good reputation and are considered essentials, just happen to keep quite a low profile. Movies, that for whatever reason, just aren't available on DVD or don't come on TV very often. But these movies usually are desired by fans worldwide, for example because they enjoy a certain cult status. ROLLING THUNDER is such a movie.
Major Charlie Rane (William Devane) has just returned from Vietnam as a POW and finds his wife and son happy. While he has problems readjusting, fighting post-traumatic stress syndrome and the memories of torture, he also faces a divorce, because his wife wants to marry another guy. After his arrival, local residents donate a suitcase full of dollar coins to him as a welcome back gift. One night, a gang of thugs shows up at his house and forces him to give up those coins. After he refuses, they torture him and put his hand into the garbage grinder, His wife and son arrive and they tell the thugs where the money is. But they kill wife and son before leaving, and leave Rane wounded on the floor. After he is somewhat healed, he goes out and seeks revenge, not telling the police who the thugs were. He is accompanied by an old lover named Linda, who joins him as he drives down to Mexico to shake up the killers of his family. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, and in the end he teams up with one of his former comrades, Johnny (Tommy Lee Jones) as they gear up and attack a whorehouse and kill everyone.
The movie was written by Paul Schrader (with Heywood Gould brought in for rewrites) and made after Taxi Driver, which was also written by him. This dramatic tale of Vietnam vets returned home, reminds me of First Blood, which was made a few years later. But Rolling Thunder is not just an action film. Actually it moves on quite slowly until it ends with a Peckinpah-esque finale with lots of shotgun fire and fake blood. Flynn directs Devane and Co through a film that slowly establishes the plot, which gives the audience plenty of opportunity to observe the character of Rane. He is an Air Force pilot, not a close combat expert (like Rambo). But he has survived through some tough shit and he is determined to take revenge for the murder of his family. All the while, that is what drives him, the only thing that keeps him going, because that's what's left to him: suffering.
All throughout the film however, Rane is a quiet and pondering man, unable to take the chance and just take off with that nice blonde girl that so unconditionally attaches herself to him. Schrader did a wonderful job illustrating this meaninglessness in Rane's life. And Rolling Thunder as a movie that works so well in that, as it doesn't let you down on suspense either. There are plenty of Vietnam flashbacks, sudden outbursts of violence and a certain amount of indecisiveness on the part of the actors.
Rolling Thunder is a cult film because it is remembered as a tough take on the post-Vietnam times and the violence that can erupt from these worlds that collide inside the minds of people who have suffered from the war and are put into a place they can't deal with anymore, usually falling victim to events that bring them back to Vietnam - in a figurative sense. I can recommend Rolling Thunder to everyone interested in critical 70s films. Its still a film that's hard to get, maybe you can catch it on MGM pay TV or snatch a bootleg somewhere.
Reviewed by The Seb - 6/25/07