Director: John Flynn
Writer: Paul Schrader, Heywood Gould
Producer: Lawrence Gordon
Cast: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes, James Best, Dabney Coleman, Luke Askew
Running Time: 95 min.
By Jeff Bona
Five years before Ted Kotcheff and Sylvester Stallone unleashed shell shock madness with 1982’s First Blood, director John Flynn delivered 1977’s Rolling Thunder, a revenge-thriller that explored similar themes. Think of Rolling Thunder as One-Armed Swordsman meets Death Wish meets a hint of John Rambo – if this description doesn’t sell you, nothing will.
Being the film nut that I am, I feel like I should have seen this movie years ago. Even its title explodes with coolness. When I think of Rolling Thunder, two things come to mind: The first is an unrelated 1986 video game called Rolling Thunder, a side-scrolling classic by Namco. Not to get into geek mode, but this quarter-eater is a childhood favorite of mine. The second is Rolling Thunder Pictures, Quentin Tarantino’s now-defunct film label that specialized in independent, cult and foreign films like Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine and the grindhouse flick, Switchblade Sisters.
It should come by no surprise that Tarantino named the film label after 1977’s Rolling Thunder, which obviously means it’s one of his all-time favorite movies.
Directed by John Flynn (Lock Up) and written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Rolling Thunder is about a traumatized war veteran named Major Charles Rane (William Devane), who has just returned to his Texas hometown and reunited with his family. To celebrate his heroic duty, the state of Texas presents him with a new Cadillac and a suitcase full of silver dollars. Little does Rane know that a band of outlaws are secretly plotting to take the silver dollars away from him, using whatever force necessary.
If you read between the lines, you can figure out that Rolling Thunder gets ugly (notice the film’s Japanese poster which clearly shows that William Devane’s character has a ‘hook’ for a hand). The first half is a painful melodrama that’s difficult to watch. The second half shifts more towards a traditional action movie, showcasing the kind of ultra-violence that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. The film’s finale is reminiscent of John Woo’s The Killer (1989) and John Flynn’s own, Out for Justice (1991), which makes Rolling Thunder way ahead of its time.
Due to its obscurity, Rolling Thunder rarely gets the credit it deserves. The movie has been out-of-print for years, making it difficult to find, unless you were able to snag an original VHS copy or fortunate enough to catch it on cable TV. It was only recently that DVD copies started showing up. Shout! Factory just announced a pristine Blu-ray edition.
You don’t have to be the world’s biggest William Devane fan to appreciate Rolling Thunder. Other than his memorable appearance in 1999’s Payback, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything else. He’s actually full of charisma and charm. I should also mention that Tommy Lee Jones co-stars; even back then, the guy lit up the screen. It’s not surprising that he would become the respected actor he is today.
If you’re a fan of gritty 1970s cinema – particularly violent titles like Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs and Death Wish – then Rolling Thunder is an absolute must see.
Jeff Bona‘s Rating: 8/10