Rolling Thunder Review

The company that made this film, AIP (American International Pictures) was responsible for many cult exploitation films between the late fifties and late seventies. There is a socio-political background to many of these, but by no means all the films rolled out by the studio. One of the extras on the disc (a bargain at 8 whole pounds on Blu-ray) is a short commentary by horror director Eli Roth over the trailer making the bold statement that Rolling Thunder was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films. Any film that has a claim that Tarantino likes this film seems to launch into cult fame. Undoubtedly Tarantino’s influence can be seen throughout the film with its redemptive use of violence and exploitation.

Made after the end of the Vietnam War, the film is set in 1973 and opens with two former American POWs returning from captivity in Hanoi back home to San Antonio, Texas to much fanfare. One of the returning captors is Sergeant Johnny Vohden (played by a young Tommy Lee Jones) and the other is his superior officer, Major Charles Rane (William Devane). Vohden tells Rane that he is dreading the struggle to adapt to civilian life. Once stepping off the plane the pair is met by a brass band and TV crews. Rane is awarded a dollar for each day he has been held in captivity and a red cadillac. He is met by his wife who has become estranged from him not knowing if he were alive or dead and a son who was still a baby when he left for Vietnam. The scene in which he discusses his life with his son is one of the most moving moments in the film. His wife has been having an affair with one of Rane’s best friends, a cop and the pair agrees to split while Rane is dealing with flashbacks of his ordeal in captivity and adapting back into civilian life while at the same time he seems distant and emotionless. A short while later Rane’s home is attacked by four men who torture him for the money he was awarded. When he refuses to give it Rane’s hand is put down the garbage disposal unit. His son, unable to witness his father being tortured tells the whereabouts of the money when the whole family are shot and murdered. Rane is left for dead but is just unconscious with a severed hand while the thieves get away with the money. He recovers in hospital now with a prosthetic hook. He is met there by his old buddy Vohden and the pair plot vengeance on the criminals. After six weeks recovery and learning to shoot with his left hand Rane travels down to El Paso and Mexico to exact his revenge.

If there is an air of familiarity about the plot it maybe because it was co-scripted by Paul Schrader who the previous year had written the script for Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese what with a Vietnam vet seeking revenge against low lifes and a character unable to fit in with society and a changing world from the one left before going to war. Led by Devane, an actor better known for playing cops in TV movies is stoney and emotionless as Rane, a man who has become hardened by his Vietnam experiences, while the young Tommy Lee Jones is also good as his friend and is equally cold; in fact the only moment he breaks a smile is just before the finale bloodbath. Although Jones’s character is a support character he never the less blindly follows Rane’s orders. The scenes of the family drama and his adaptation to family life are not dull and nor is the dialogue. In fact the film does a good job at engaging both in the drama and the violence and credit must go to director John Flynn as well as to Paul Schrader for this, a director whose credits are few and include the cop drama The Outfit (1973) with Robert Duvall and the awful Sylvester Stallone action prison drama, Lock Up (1989). The films finale bloodbath as the two men enact their revenge in a brothel in Juarez, Mexico ends abruptly and suddenly, typical of such cult films as this one.

I have to confess to having never heard of this film before but it does defy its B movie status as being a worthy film as a cult effort with a surprising performance from Devane and yet its final message about violence being redemptive for both Rane and Vohden is a dubious and morally uneasy one – but hey it is set in Texas and Mexico where these attitudes prevail. As mentioned the film does have one or two extras such as Eli Roth’s energetic commentary over the top of the trailer reel and an interview with the love interest in the form of Linda Haynes who talks about her short lived acting career. Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Chris Hick

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