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Review: Rolling Thunder

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'Rolling' back the years is this cult classic...

Review: Rolling Thunder DVD...

Cult film fans rejoice! Classic revenge flick Rolling Thunder has finally been given its long-overdue release on DVD and Blu-Ray. The 1977 movie features a star cast including William Devane (Marathon Man, 24), Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, Men in Black), and Linda Haynes (Human Experiments). Surprisingly, this is the 1977 movie’s first digital release having previously only been available on VHS.

Aside from the cast, the film has great pedigree as the screenplay was co-written by Paul Schrader shortly after he wrote Taxi Driver. Indeed, there are some clear parallels between the two stories. Like Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder tells the story of a haunted Vietnam vet who exacts bloody vengeance on his transgressors. In this case, we follow the newly-escaped prisoner-of-war, Major Charles Raine (Devane), who has returned to a hero’s welcome in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Presented with a new cherry red Cadillac, a suitcase of silver dollars and reunited with his wife and children, he is finally able to pick up where he left off and continue with his life.

Well, not quite.

His wife confesses she has been with another man while he was held prisoner and his children don’t know who he is after such a long time. He is also plagued by flashbacks to the torture he endured back in ‘Nam. Struggling to readjust to life as a free man, things go from bad to worse as he returns home one day to find a gang of thieves in his house demanding his silver dollars and not afraid to use force to get them. The gang murders Raine’s family, mangles his hand in the waste disposal machine and leaves with the loot.

Poster for Rolling Thunder...He wakes up in hospital with his pretty blonde “groupie,” Linda (Haynes) by his bedside. She pledges to help him recover. However, Raine’s idea of recovery consists of tooling up, sharpening his metal prosthetic hand to a savage hook in the pursuit of revenge.

Linda accompanies him on his mission, riding as passenger in his Cadillac and often acting as bait for the various crooks, scumbags and general ne’er-do-wells Raine hunts down. They form an unlikely partnership and, after spending a short amount of time together, it soon becomes clear that Linda is also damaged goods. There are some surprisingly poignant moments between the two, in spite of Devane’s brilliant depiction of Major Raine as a hollow shell of a man.

Raine’s journey leads him, accompanied by fellow prisoner of war, Johnny (Jones), to Mexico, where the final bloody showdown takes place in a small-town brothel.

The cult appeal of the film is indisputable, counting none other than Quentin Tarantino among its admirers. Indeed, Mr Tarantino is such a fan he named his short-lived cult movie distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures, after it. The film’s inspiration is visible in other areas of Tarantino’s work, particularly his own revenge movie, Kill Bill.

Another more recent work that must claim some influence is Showtime’s Golden Globe-winning drama series, Homeland. The first few episodes echo Rolling Thunder’s early scenes with a returning prisoner of war trying to make sense of a world that has moved on without him while enduring harrowing flashbacks. You could even argue that Rolling Thunder’s hand maiming scene was the inspiration for the scene in Kingpin where the protagonist has his arm fed into the machinery at a bowling alley; costing him his arm.

The film’s central concept could quite easily seem a little tired to modern eyes but the skilled writing of Schrader and Heywood Gould, plus Devane’s outstanding performance as the haunted Major Raine draws the viewer in. There are also clues to Raine’s character and the loyalty it engenders, with both Linda and Johnny dropping everything for him at separate points of the film.

The film is less violent than you might expect, instead allowing Raine’s rage to simmer below the surface for the majority of the picture. In addition, the scene where Raine’s hand is forced into the waste disposal does not show the act itself, instead focusing on Raine himself.

Now, that’s not to say there aren’t moments of extreme violence, however.  The abrupt and savage nature of most of the film’s aggression, and the glassy-eyed malevolence of Raine gives him a menacing, almost shark-like quality.

The DVD extras include commentary from Heywood Gould; the film’s original theatrical and TV trailers; an overview commentary of the trailer by Eli Roth (which can be seen below) taken from the Trailers from Hell blog, and an interview with Linda Hayes.

For fans of cult movies, Rolling Thunder is, naturally, a must-buy and a stand-out film in the genre. However, it has a lot to offer to all film lovers. Excellent performances from Devane and Jones make this a worthy addition to anyone’s collection.

4 stars


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