Tommy Lee Jones
Lisa Blake Richards
Trivia Kris Kristofferson was set to star, but dropped out and the role was recast with William Devane.
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Rolling Thunder (1977)
8th Feb 12
War hero returns from POW camp. Shit gets real. Badassary and soul-searching are the order of the day.
Here’s a rare one: a high end exploitation movie that delivers the tough guy thrills and also makes you think. Rolling Thunder is one of those cult classics that makes good on it's reputation and working from a script by Paul Schrader (who was due to direct before a fall out behind the scenes), John Flynn concocts an unlikely mix of the back-from-Nam psychological hell of Schrader’s era-defining Taxi Driver, the back-from-Nam emotional drama of Coming Home and the back-from-Nam & gonna fuck up some punks fun of The Exterminator.
Opening somewhat unpromisingly with a Denny Brooks ballad that even Cameron Crowe would describe as “a bit soppy” any taste of schmaltz is washed away when we’re introduced to Major Charles Rain (Devane) receiving a hero’s welcome as he returns after 8 years in a POW camp to a world he doesn’t know anymore. On his first night back home with his family, Rain realises his son sees a stranger in him and his wife is seeing another guy. Yes, sir - things are not going too well for the war hero, but they’re about to get a lot worse as a charitable PR stunt backfires horribly (don’t they always?) and Rain launches a slow burn rampage of revenge on a gang of nasty nasty good ol' boys with snake hips.
While Rolling Thunder is punctuated by bursts of realistically scrappy yet stylish violence, it is at its heart a character piece and this is Devane’s show. Portraying a man who may be dead inside with whatever feeling he has left buried deep, deep down is never an easy task, but Devane gives a stone-faced, subtly expressive turn that tells us just the right amount about this tragic hero. He’s the Travis Bickle you want to give a hug. A disturbingly young Tommy Lee Jones puts in a great show as Devane’s equally distressed war buddy and just about runs away with film in the few scenes he has. Linda Haynes plays a blindly devoted but savvy would-be love interest with a unique tomboy quality and a raw believability that makes you forget how misogynistic her character could have been. On bad guy duties, Luke Askew makes for a terrifying antagonist and is as reptilian as they come and also takes a metal hook to the groin in the manliest way one could reasonably expect.
It might be the case that Flynn was a gun for hire when Schrader left the project and the original script was rewritten by Heywood Gould, but it’s very difficult to imagine Schrader (a fine but hardly bulletproof filmmaker) delivering a film as well balanced and formed as this. For every bad ass bar fight or Peckinpah shoot out there’s a potent intimate moment, including an unusually powerful scene in which Devane persuades his wife’s new squeeze to tie his hands behind his back morale-break style.
StudioCanal’s Blu-ray release represents a wonderful shout for a film that’s had surprisingly short thrift from the digital market. A beautifully clear transfer that doesn’t compromise the grit n grain and an audio mix that’s brings the firepower and serves the dialogue. making this the version to get.
Nice bonus features too with a funny, informative commentary from co-writer Heywood moderated by Roy Fumkes (AKA the thinking man’s Lloyd Kaufman), a new interview with the seemingly adorable Haynes and Eli Roth’s trailer commentary ported over from Joe Dante’s supremely fun Trailers From Hell site.
Rolling Thunder is a true genre classic that manages to have its cake and eat it. It goes deep without getting thick and by the end you will have been touched, traumatized and thrilled. Highly recommended to all film fans with a strong stomach and a little patience. That damn song does still come back over the credits mind you, only this time there’s a darn good chance you may shed a tear to it.