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Release Date(s)1977 (May 28, 2013)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Shout! Factory)
Revenge pictures have been a staple of exploitation cinema since the get-go. Nothing gets an audience going like seeing someone wronged, then seeking their own brand of justice. But most revenge pictures require some kind of leap of faith. We’re asked to believe that if something is traumatic enough, it’ll transform the meekest milquetoast into a ruthless killing machine. Rarely has revenge been delivered as coolly and efficiently as in John Flynn’s perennially underrated Rolling Thunder.
William Devane gives one of the great performances of his career as Major Charles Rane, a recently freed POW who spent the last seven years in a Hanoi prison camp. He returns home to a wife who’s guilt-ridden about the fact that she’s moved on and a son who hasn’t the faintest idea who he is. A grateful community honors him with a brand new convertible and a case of silver dollars, which attracts the attention of a band of sleazy thugs led by a sniggering James Best. The gang slaughters his family, pulverizes his hand in a garbage disposal, and leaves him for dead. Needless to say, that’s their first mistake.
Rolling Thunder was written by Paul Schrader and subsequently rewritten by Heywood Gould, although the core elements of Schrader’s worldview remain. Both Devane and a young Tommy Lee Jones are phenomenal, giving haunted performances as returning Vietnam vets who haven’t even begun to process the hell they’ve been through. When Devane goes after the killers, it isn’t just a personal vendetta. We’re seeing seven years of repressed rage explode outward. Flynn’s understated direction is taut and thrilling. The slow burn gives the action scenes a jolt they wouldn’t otherwise have. Above all, the movie makes sense, which can’t be said for a lot of other revenge pictures. You believe these characters are capable of doing what they do. The conversations they have and decisions they make feel organic and real.
For years, Rolling Thunder was a notoriously difficult movie to find. When Quentin Tarantino named his exploitation distribution company after the movie back in 1995, I assumed a DVD release would be imminent. After that, crickets. Rolling Thunder was actually one of the movies that inspired the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted crusade to spotlight unreleased films. Eventually, MGM begrudgingly released it to MOD DVD with god-awful cover art that practically dared you to be interested in it. Better than nothing, I suppose, but barely.
Happily, Shout! Factory has brought Rolling Thunder to Blu-ray in high style. First off, kudos to the art department for using the awesome original poster as the cover. The picture is surprisingly good, capturing Jordan Cronenweth’s warm, earthy cinematography extremely well. There’s never any doubt that you’re watching a modestly budgeted production from the 1970s but you won’t hear me complaining about that. The DTS-HD audio presents the original mono sound and it’s nice and clear throughout. Extras are a bit modest but well done. There’s a nice collection of promo materials (trailer, TV and radio spots). The very good 22-minute Making of Rolling Thunder featurette boasts new interviews with William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Paul Schrader, Heywood Gould, and stunt coordinator Billy Burton. It’s short but sweet, packed with interesting anecdotes and reminiscences.
When the MOD model was introduced, one of my primary concerns was double-dipping, especially since the original MOD discs ain’t cheap. Sure enough, that’s beginning to happen, primarily with MGM and Universal titles (Warner Archive still seems to be a safe bet for now). If you bought MGM’s release thinking that was the best you’d get, I wouldn’t blame you for being annoyed. But the Blu-ray is well worth the upgrade, especially with Shout! Factory keeping the price relatively modest. If you’re new to Rolling Thunder, pick this one up immediately. It’s one of the best movies of the 70s you’ve never seen.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke