Review: Rolling Thunder (18) / Director: John Flynn / Screenplay: George VanBuskirk / Starring: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes / Release date: 30th January
In this little-known but extremely worthwhile revenge thriller from 1977, two Vietnam vets return home to a hero's welcome after 8 years of imprisonment and torture. But for Major Charles Rane (William Devane) it's hardly a fairytale ending: his wife's been cuckolding him, his son doesn't remember him and America has changed almost beyond recognition. When he points out that his wife isn't wearing a bra, she replies, “No one wears them now.”
Rane himself has been transformed by his experiences into a remote, impassive character, harbouring twisted masochistic longings. Almost the only thing in the first reel to get his pulse racing is his reenactment of some of his captors' favourite torture tricks with the aid of some rope and the bewildered cop who's been sleeping with his wife.
It's almost like a spiritual homecoming for him, then, when a gang of thugs break into his house and rough him up in an attempt to discover the location of some silver dollars given to him upon his return. What follows is a rangy, loose-limbed vendetta story as he attempts to track down the gang and exact his vengeance.
The script was co-written by Paul Shrader, and it has his fingerprints all over it. Rootless, alienated, out of step with his times, Rane has a lot in common with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and even looks like him when he stands shirtless in front of a mirror, a holster strapped to his malnourished side. To help him take down the evils goons, the obsessive major hooks up with his war buddy Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones,) a revenge-as-bonding-ceremony motif which recalls another Schrader-scripted movie, The Yakuza (1974) But perhaps most interestingly, Rolling Thunder prefigures the theme of male masochism which crops up both in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (1980.)
Yet whereas, in those films, the theme is an intriguing undercurrent, here it is front and centre. When someone asks him how he survived all those years of suffering, he explains “You learn to love the rope.” The irony is that people are constantly mistaking his masochistic passiveness for cool machismo. When, in the hands of the goons, he takes his licks without giving up the silver dollars, they assume he's acting the hero – in fact, he's swooning in exquisite agony. This sly puncturing of the whole idea of tight-lipped, bloody-knuckled masculinity is Schrader at his best.
Rolling Thunder's director was the late John Flynn, a reliable Hollywood journeyman who went on to helm action flicks with Stallone and Seagal. His work here is first rate, calm and unfussy in the style of Schrader's own later directorial efforts. He handles the violence with a casualness that makes it seem even more outrageous, and takes all of the oddball themes in his world-weary stride, while wrapping up everything in a pleasing Tex-Mex ambience. He's abetted by a clutch of fine performances from Tommy Lee Jones as Rane's wingman, James Best (Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) as the twitchy, sweaty leader of the gang of thieves, and windblown beauty Linda Haynes as a waitress who does her best to get under Rane's skin. As Rane, William Devane bottles up his feelings expertly. He was a most watchable leading man at this stage of his career, before the box office disaster of Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) turned him into one of Hollywood's forgotten men.