Part hard-nosed revenge flick and part moody examination of a damaged psyche, John Flynn's Rolling Thunder
is one of the very best Vietnam 'coming home' movies. It's also the sort of period piece that you just don't get any more, or at least not without it turning into a daftly ironic and sad parody of itself.
Major Charles Rane returns from spending seven years in a Vietnamese POW camp to a hero's welcome, but his return is quickly soured on discovering his wife's infidelity. Suffering flashbacks of the torture he endured, he tries to bond with a young son who barely knows him.
Rane's efforts to readjust are quickly shattered when a botched robbery leaves him missing a hand, and mourning a dead wife and son. Soul torn asunder, Rane sets off to find the thugs responsible.
Much touted as a Quentin Tarantino favourite (hence his short lived Rolling Thunder Pictures), it's a a sombre, bleak and gripping drama, punctuated by moments of stark, violent action. As with so many pictures of the period, it's not quite the action-packed revenge flick it's so often billed as. From a story by Paul Shrader (originally set to direct, before Flynn stepped in) it bears many of his hallmarks, with much of the drama centring on Rane's tough-as-nails, yet totally shattered mental state.
Devane has never been better, bringing a quiet but terrifying intensity to the role, and a young Tommy Lee Jones brings a whole new meaning to understated as Rane's loyal army pal, Johnny Vohden. Flynn's efficient, unfussy direction suits the mood perfectly - it's all shot through with a grim, matter-of-fact aesthetic which leaves little room for overblown hysterics. Emotions are almost completely left simmering under the surface with really only Devane's tag-along waitress and self-confessed roadie, Linda Forchett (Linda Haynes), articulating (poorly) her feelings verbally. But for the most part, the dialogue is expertly economical.
Although undoubtedly dark and serious-minded, there's fun to be had in the 70s movie staples - Haynes' lonely tomboy who can give as good as she gets and some wonderfully evocative lines. In response to hearing of his wife's infidelity, Rane's perfectly delivered "I'm just gonna sit here" seems to betray a whole zeitgeist in just a few words. And for all the slow-build drama and pensive gazing, the film still delivers one hell of a final payoff. When Rane's revenge finally comes in a climactic whorehouse shoot out, it's an enormous release of pressure, for us as well as him. Edited and staged with some skill, it's a remarkably tense set-up before the firing starts, with Tommy Lee Jones biding time by constructing a gun whilst a prostitute straddles him. Now that's a movie.
Sporting aviators, sharpened prosthetic hook and medal-adorned military garb, Devane cuts a striking, iconic figure. A classic genre picture, with fantastic performances and an awesome 70s toughness that recalls Peckinpah's heyday, Rolling Thunder is ripe for rediscovery. Again.
I watched the blu-ray disc, but the full package comes as a double play (BR and DVD) set.
The picture transfer is a mixed bag. Early scenes have noticeable artifacts and there's significant grain over the first few minutes. After that it settles down and, whilst not an all-singing restoration by any stretch, the benefits of blu-ray do shine through with strong detail, especially in some of the very dimly lit night time scenes. The colour balance seems good, and for a film that's been largely unavailable on any format for so long, overall, it's happy time.
The mono track is serviceable, though a few lines are muffled.
Audio commentary with co-writer Heywood Gould, moderated by Roy Frumkes
There's plenty of insider knowledge around the film's production here, though it would have been nice to hear from Devane and Shrader at some point. Gould and Frumkes are decent enough company, though not the liveliest or chattiest pair.
Theatrical trailer with Eli Roth introduction and commentary
Incidental filler cut from a longer feature on old movie trailers some time ago.
Exclusive interview with Linda Haynes
Haynes recalls her brief acting career and experiences on the film - it's nice to hear from her, though there's little of substance on offer.
Original TV spot
Yep, you guessed it.
Overall this feels like a missed opportunity. Films don't really get more cult than this, and with it unavailable in the UK for so long it's a prime candidate for a full-blown fan package.
Rolling Thunder is out on Double Play (Blu-ray and DVD) through Studio Canal from 30th January 2012.