Directed by John Flynn in 1977, Rolling Thunder, for whatever reason, never really got the respect it deserved. When you figure it was originally written by Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and that it was one of Oscar winning actor Tommy Lee Jones' first major film roles, you'd think more people would be aware of it. It was given a VHS release but languished without a domestic DVD until about two years ago in 2011 when MGM issued it as part of their MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD-R program. It finally hit Blu-ray in the UK in early 2012 but there was no news of a domestic Blu-ray issue until Shout! Factory recently stepped up to the plate.
The film, set in 1973, introduces us to Major Charlie Rane (William Devane), a Vietnam veteran who has returned home to a town in Texas after spending months in a grueling prisoner of war camp overseas. When the plane lands, he gives a short speech to a respectably sized crowd and is given some money and a red Cadillac in recognition for the service he provided his country. What may appear to be a hero's welcome to some, however, soon turns into a very tough adjustment period for Charlie. Though his wife, Janet (Lisa Richards), is glad he's home alive, she's been unfaithful in his absence and intends to marry her new man, a cop named Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll). Adding insult to injury is the fact that his son, Mark (Jordan Gerler), doesn't really know him. Charlie and Mark do try to build a proper father/son relationship but it doesn't take Charlie long to realize that he's never going to full rebuild the life he left behind when he went to Vietnam.
Things take an interesting turn when Cliff, with the best of intentions, talks to Charlie and the subject of torture comes up. Charlie's reaction makes it clear that something is not quite right with him, that he's returned a very changed man. On the brighter side, Charlie hits it off with Linda (Linda Haynes), a cute waitress who is obviously interested in him. Charlie brushes her aside, he's clearly got a lot on his mind, but she is gently persistent with him. Charlie's breaking point is reached when two thugs (James Best and Luke Askew) and their gang of Mexican thugs break into his house to steal the money that he was awarded. He refuses to give it up and is tortured, his hand stuffed into the garbage disposal in the sink. When Janet and Mark come home in the middle of all this, Mark tells them where the money is hoping that the thugs will leave everyone alone, but Charlie's wife and son are murdered in cold blood and his right hand severely mutilated. Left for dead by the thugs, Charlie sharpens the hook that has replaced his hand and trains himself how to use a gun with only one arm. Swearing revenge, he asks Linda to accompany him to Mexico where he meets up with his war buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and sets out to get revenge.
Rolling Thunder is very much a slow burn picture, at least for the first half of the movie. It takes just the right amount of time to let us get to know the characters, Rane in particular. The script lets us inside his head, we understand why he comes back to Texas a damaged man and we completely understand why he would snap the way he snaps once things very quickly go downhill for him. Devane does an excellent job in the lead, playing things fairly calm on the outside but we know he's bottling it up. His performance is intense, and while his Rane is a man of few words, he's able to communicate enough using body language and facial expressions that we know what's going through his head. Jones, in a very solid supporting role, makes a great counterpart to Devane. Where Rane is damaged goods trying to regain what he once had, Vohden misses the action and the adrenaline rush that he found in combat. His enthusiasm, once he gets the call from Rane (he responds with 'I'll just get my gear.' - indicating that he'd been waiting for this) is both obvious and frightening and it makes him more than just a 'guy with a gun.' The fact that both men put on their military dress uniforms before exacting their revenge plot makes it seem almost habitual for them, as if what they're about to do, as horrible as it may be, is in their nature whether they want it to be or not. Throw in some great supporting work from Linda Haynes and Lawrason Driscoll and this turns out to be a very well-acted movie with a cast that effectively brings to the screen all the emotion and drama that would seem to be possible.
As such, once the storyline, originally written by Schrader and then re-written by Heywood Gould, passes the first hour, things are effectively set up for the perfect ending. With elements of Peckinpah and Scorsese seeping in, Flynn brings the film to a remarkably satisfying conclusion. Expertly edited by
Frank P. Keller (his last film, he died shortly after it was made) and making great use of Barry De Vorzon's evocative score, the last half hour of the movie shows us that the violence we knew was brewing underneath all along has come to a boil. It's an interesting statement on how on man deals with the fact that, by trying to do the right thing and serve his country, he's been made irrelevant to those he left behind. It takes on the subject of what it means to learn how to kill and how that training, in certain hands, can enable those with nothing left to lose. As tense and exciting as the movie is, it's also very much a tragedy. It's a film in which there are no winners about a man who, no matter how hard he may try, cannot leave behind the horrors of war.
Shout! Factory presents Rolling Thunder on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed in the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.85.1. If you've seen the UK release that came out about a year or so ago, you'll know what to expect, as this transfer looks to be pretty much the same. So how does it stack up? Pretty good, actually. Keeping in mind that this is a movie made over thirty years ago and with a reasonably modest budget for a major studio production, Rolling Thunder can't (and shouldn't) compare with the latest and greatest Hollywood blockbuster - and it doesn't. It does, however, look like the gritty seventies picture that it is. You can expect to see a fair bit of grain and a few minor specks here and there but you'll also likely appreciate the very natural looking color reproduction. Skin tones look good, nice and natural and never too pink or waxy, while black levels are solid throughout. Detail is definitely improved over what DVD can provide, you'll notice this more in close up shots than medium and long distance shots but even there you can note the texture on some wallpaper or the fibers in some of the clothing worn in the film. There aren't any issues with edge enhancement or noise reduction and all in all, this is a nice, film like presentation that does a good job of presenting the source material in what feels like a very accurate presentation.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD Mono track, there are no alternate language options provided though there are optional English subtitles available. For an older single channel mix, things sound good on this release. Dialogue remains clean, clear and distinct while sound effects pack the appropriate amount of punch - the gunshots in particular have some good weight behind them, even if there are one or two spots where you can be nitpicky and notice some really minor distortion. Overall though, the audio here is solid indeed. The score is mixed in perfectly and compliments the action and the drama just as it should, never burying the performers. Clarity is strong across the board and there are no problems with any hiss or related issues. In short, this sounds just like you'd expect a good presentation of a seventies movie like Rolling Thunder to sound. Some might lament the absence of a 5.1 remix but you can't fault Shout! Factory for going with the original mono on a movie like this - if it ain't broke, why fix it?
The main extra on the disc is a twenty-two minute long featurette entitled The Making Of Rolling Thunder. Included here are some particularly interesting interview bits with leading men William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, writers Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould and stunt coordinator Billy Burton. A few highlights of the discussions included here involve Burton discussing the difficulties of completing the film's violent finale without the benefit of having a trained stunt team at his disposal, Schrader talking about his original version of the script and Gould discussing what he was brought in to do in regards to rewriting Schrader's take on the story. Devane and Jones discuss their characters and their thoughts on the movie and also share some memories of their time spent in front of the camera working with the film's director, the late John Flynn. This is quite a nice addition to the disc and a nice retrospective look back at the making of and subsequent influence of Rolling Thunder.
Rounding out the extras are a still gallery of promotional materials related to the movie, the film's original theatrical trailer, a TV spot, four radio spots, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on the disc are in high definition. Completists may want to note that the UK release, which is Region B encoded and therefore not compatible with standard North American Blu-ray players, includes a commentary with Gould and an interview with actress Linda Haynes, neither of which have been carried over for this domestic release.
Rolling Thunder is a lean and efficient seventies revenge movie, a tense and involving thriller that builds to a satisfyingly grim conclusion and which features some great work from leads William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. Shout! Factory gives this underrated gem a fine domestic Blu-ray debut, offering it up in fine shape and with a solid documentary highlighting its supplemental package. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.