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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/28/98

1992 (1998) - Columbia TriStar

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: A
In my opinion, a great film - one of my recent favorites. Terrific performances by Val Kilmer and Graham Greene, a great supporting cast, taut direction, and a well-woven script.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/C
The film has never looked better than it does here in anamorphic widescreen. The audio is only Dolby Surround, but it's quite good. A theatrical trailer is also included.

Overall Rating: B+
The lack of extras hurts a bit on the bang-for-buck end, but if you think you might like Thunderheart, don't hesitate. This is just a great film - I can't recommend it more highly.

Specs and Features

119 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, pan & scan, dual-sided, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English & French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English & French, Close Captioned


A first-rate murder mystery, Thunderheart stars Val Kilmer as Special Agent Ray Levoi, a hotshot young FBI agent who is sent in to assist in the investigation of a shooting death on a Lakota Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. Ray is chosen for the task by his superiors, because his father was Sioux - it's hoped that he might be more acceptable to the locals, who distrust the government. But Ray chaffs at the mention his Native American heritage. The legendary agent he's assigned to, a good-old-boy named Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard), also recognizes the empty gesture. "In the right light, you kinda look like Sal Mineo from Arrows on the Prairie. Otherwise your coming here is kinda like pissin' in the wind," he declares upon meeting Ray at the airport.

Almost immediately, Ray entirely fails to garner sympathy. As they inspect the crime scene, Ray roughs up a potential suspect... who turns out to be the tribe's sheriff, Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene). To make matters worse, Ray quickly learns that the tribe is involved in something of a civil war. A local Native-rights movement called ARM has been encouraging tribe members to use whatever means necessary, including violence, to reclaim their heritage. One of tribe's leaders (Fred Ward), has organized a goon squad to keep ARM at bay. And Coutelle tells Ray that their chief suspect in the murder is a leader in the ARM movement. But as Ray interviews the locals, including a feisty school teacher and an elderly medicine man, he begins to question the identity of the killer. And as he digs deeper, Ray starts to suspect Coutelle's motives, and discovers that the situation is far more complicated than he was lead to believe.

Set against the stark beauty of the South Dakota Badlands, Thunderheart is based loosely on events that took place on the Pine Ridge reservation in the 1970s. Directed by Michael Apted (Extreme Measures, Gorky Park, Nell), Thunderheart resonates with spirituality and careful attention to detail regarding Lakota custom and history. The script is deftly woven by screenwriter John Fusco. The story unfolds carefully, maintaining an air of mystery right to its satisfying conclusion.

Kilmer are Shepard are very good here, but it's Greene who really steals the show. His irreverence for Kilmer's character (whom he calls the Washington Redskin) is obvious, and the wise-ass banter between the two is very entertaining. It's also fascinating to watch as a grudging respect develops between them. The supporting cast is also very good, particularly Ted Thin Elk (as the medicine man) and Sheila Tousey (as the teacher, Maggie Eagle Bear). Even the soundtrack is first-rate, full of haunting native rhythms, by Academy Award winning composer James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart, Apollo 13).

The quality of the DVD presentation is equally good. The anamorphic widescreen picture is excellent - very crisp, with good color and contrast. The print shows some very slight film grain (and bits of dust) on occasion, but the transfer is top-notch. Thunderheart is suffused with starkly beautiful images of the landscape, as captured by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Rob Roy), and they are really done justice here. The film has certainly never looked better. A pan & scan version is also provided on the opposite side of the disc.

The audio is Dolby Surround only, but the Pro Logic is very good, and manages to convey good sense of space. Audio is also provided in French, as are subtitles in both English and French. A theatrical trailer of lesser quality (both in terms of the print condition, and the fact that doesn't adequately capture the essence of the film) is included as an extra.

Bottom line

Thunderheart is an original and intriguing mystery. I really dig this film a great deal. Val Kilmer gives one of his best performances - I wish he'd do more films like this, instead of choosing lame star vehicles (The Saint anyone?). And Graham Greene matches him step for step. Thunderheart is a film alive with heart and spirit - a very rare thing these days. Not the greatest value DVD-wise, particularly given Columbia TriStar's higher prices, but the disc quality is excellent. Highly recommended.

Bill Hunt
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