Rolling Thunder (1977)
By: Stuart Giesel on March 3, 2012  | 
Studio Canal (UK) | Region B | 1.85:1, 1080p | English: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 | 99 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Flynn
Starring: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Heywood Gould
Country: USA
External Links
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Finally, FINALLY, one of the best revenge movies of the 70's comes to optical disc. For years we fans of Rolling Thunder have had to endure tenth-generation VHS copies with less clarity than a glass of mud, so to have a pristine copy of this underappeciated gem is truly a gift. For those who haven't seen it, Rolling Thunder is your standard "Vietnam vet trying to integrate back into society after thugs take his hand and steal his silver coins revenge film" (that old chestnut). It's got its flaws, but when a film has an arse-kicking Tommy Lee Jones there's not much else you need for a great time.

Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has returned to his home town after spending seven years in a P.O.W. camp being tortured. He finds it difficult to come to terms with what's changed since he's been away; most notably, his wife is planning to marry a policeman. He also struggles to work himself back into his son's life. As part of his homecoming, the town has awarded Rane a cash prize (a collection of silver dollars for every day he spent in confinement), and he has also attracted the attentions of a young lady named Linda (Linda Haynes). Unfortunately the prize money has attracted the notice of some scumbags, who kill Rane's family and destroy his right hand. With the help of army buddy John Vohden (a startingly young and svelte Tommy Lee Jones) Rane seeks down the gang of thugs who are holed up in Mexico.

I call Rolling Thunder a revenge movie, but that's like saying Taxi Driver is a simple revenge movie too. That's really only part of the story. If you're expecting some Death Wish-style nastiness, then perhaps you've been misled. Don't get me wrong, Rolling Thunder has the prerequisite bloodshed and violence you'd expect, but it's got more characterisation than the sub-genre typically provides and there are more "slow bits" than is typical for a movie made these days. In fact, some viewers will probably be bored with it after the first ten or twenty minutes. Yes, Rolling Thunder isn't afraid of taking its time. There's real chemistry between Major Rane and Linda, and the film doesn't just lurch from one set-piece to the next with scarce consideration for what's going on in the characters' heads. It takes the time to show how truly damaged Rane is, most tellingly so when he meets his wife's husband-to-be and shows him one of the torture methods he was subjected to. William Devane strikes just the right balance - he's not a complete nutter, and you can see the emotion struggling to get out, but he's been so affected by his seven years of isolation and torture that he's almost dead inside. Tommy Lee Jones, despite limited screen time, makes the most of his character, even though he only says a few words (though he has the two best lines in the movie; anyone who's seen Rolling Thunder is sure to know them).

Other than a tight script by Paul Schrader (then off the success of Taxi Driver) and co-writer Heywood Gould, and the performances, what's also great about this is the understated direction by John Flynn, who also directed Steven Seagal's best film Out for Justice. There's nothing flashy about the direction, but everything is staged well and Flynn trusts his crew and actors enough to let them speak for themselves without any unnecessary embellishment. If Rolling Thunder were remade today it'd be directed by some wanker with a TV advertising background shooting with a shaky-cam and making edits every two seconds. And the film would star Mark Wahlberg as Rane and Paul Walker as Vohden.

Rolling Thunder may have a reputation as a gory exploitative revenge film in the vein of the similarly-themed The Executioner, but it has more meat on the bones than that thanks to a lean and intelligent script as well as great performances from William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. For fans, the fact that we have Rolling Thunder on DVD and Blu-Ray in any sort of reasonable condition is cause enough to celebrate.
Okay, it's not exactly Avatar quality we're talking about here, but considering what fans of Rolling Thunder have had to ensure in the past, it's like seeing the film for the first time. The picture has retained its grain and there hasn't been any noticeable noise reduction that has plagued other Blu-Ray conversions. There are some white specks and bits of crap that pop up now and then, but other than that the picture is excellent, with good detail. As explained in the audio commentary, the cinematographer liked shooting scenes in lots of darkness - some early scenes are extremely underlit - but the blacks in the Blu-Ray picture are very deep. Overall, a very fine job.
There's only one audio track (other than the commentary) which is English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. As you might expect, there's no immersive surround sound or deep, ball-shattering effects but the mix is solid and the dialogue is crisp and clear.
Extra Features
As mentioned, the fact that we've got Rolling Thunder on disc is miracle enough, which is fortunate because the special features are pretty lacklustre.

Audio commentary with Co-writer Heywood Gould, moderated by Roy Frumkes: The best feature on the disc is a terrific commentary by co-writer Gould and ably assisted by Frumkes who's probably best known for his Dawn of the Dead documentary Document of the Dead. The commentary is informative and quite comprehensive, with some interesting anecdotes about the production of the film, the cast and director John Flynn. Whilst it would've been great to hear from the principal cast or Paul Schrader, this is still an excellent commentary for fans.

Original theatrical trailer with Introduction and Commentary by Eli Roth:
Eli Roth talks over the original theatrical trailer for Rolling Thunder. As lame as it sounds.

Exclusive interview with Linda Haynes:
Linda recalls her start in the movie industry and her time shooting Rolling Thunder. Overall it's pretty dry and not especially interesting.

The Blu-Ray also has the original theatrical trailer (sans Roth) and the original TV spot.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
An underappreciated gem (unless you're Quentin Tarantino), Rolling Thunder rises above its potentially exploitative "soldier-returns-home-and-takes-revenge" material thanks to a great cast and a strong script, overseen by a director who wasn't in it for a cheap buck. And Tommy Lee Jones is awesome. Welcome home, Major Charles Rane, and welcome home to Blu-Ray, Rolling Thunder.

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