A soldier receives a gracious and warm welcome back party in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas after seven years of torture and abuse in a Vietnam POW camp. The entire town is in attendance to witness Major Charlie Rane (William Devane) step off the airplane and give a short speech to the community. It's a stirring sequence, followed by another public celebration where Charlie is given a red Cadillac and $2,555 dollars for every day he was held captive. That's the equivalent of over $12,000 dollars today (or nearly £8,000 pounds in Great Britain). These are the amazing homecoming gestures to a hero who's suffered a great deal of physical pain, but no one sees the psychological and emotional damage he continues to live with, which makes up much of the film's success.
The first act of this wonderfully engaging vigilante/revenge flick from 1977 is dedicated to Charlie attempting to reassimilate himself back in normal society. This proves to be tougher than expected as he soon discovers the world he left behind has moved on without him — his son doesn't know him and his wife is engaged to a local police officer. Devane's reaction to all this is heartbreaking, seemingly indifferent and apathetic to news that would hurt any grown adult. But behind this stoic and impassive figure who continues to relive the experience of his captivity hides a man in anguish, unable to connect with another human being. Even when a beautiful young woman (Linda Haynes) flirts with him, making her intentions clear, the serviceman remains emotionally distant and unresponsive.
Coming from a script by Paul Shrader, who also penned the excellent films 'Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull' and 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' the story begins as a war drama exploring the invisible wounds of combat and a soldier's unspoken challenge for normalcy. It's a terrific, fascinating start, tightly focused on Charlie's point of view, which not only captivates our attention for seeing what happens next but also has us sympathizing with him. The poor man has already suffered enough at the hands of enemies; now, he's forced to deal with losing his wife and possibly his son. And Devane's performance in these moments is excellent, setting up and smartly winning viewers to his cause. Unlike Travis Bickle, however, Charlie doesn't exactly go off the deep end, and his outrage towards an increasingly ugly society is not without a deserved sense of injury.
One day, Charlie walks into his house and finds four men have broken in. Led by James Best, whose most memorable role is as Sheriff Rosco on The Dukes of Hazzard, they demand the money the people of his hometown had given him. Part of their cruel villainy is killing Charlie's family and leaving him for dead, minus his right hand. Of course, he survives the vicious attack and soon recovers. Equipped with a new metal claw and lots of guns, the plot switches into a hunt for the men at the outskirts of the Mexican border. This is where the first half of the movie pays off because by now, audiences are on the side of the ex-POW and even cheer him on as he pursues the four outlaws. Granted, he tracks them down much too easily, but the desire for making them pay is more seductive.
'Rolling Thunder' is a noteworthy and exciting vigilante film this side of the 'Death Wish' and 'Dirty Harry' series, toying with many of the motifs from the western genre. Indeed, the low-budget exploitation flick could be easily seen as a modern-day western, replacing the determined John Wayne-type of heroic gunslinger with an emotionally-distant war veteran. His sidekick in the pursuit of justice is a very young Tommy Lee Jones as Sergeant First Class Johnny Vohden, a fellow POW survivor and the only person who can relate with Charlie. Only time Johnny ever breaks a smile is when he packs his guns and joins the Major to a brothel where the men are hiding. Directed by John Flynn, the shootout is rather swift and only lasts for a few minutes, but it's brilliant nonetheless and a magnificent finale to an entertaining actioner.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Studio Canal brings this UK release of 'Rolling Thunder' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. The first is a Region B locked, BD50 disc while the second is a DVD-5 copy of the movie. Both sit comfortably on opposing panels inside a blue, slightly-bigger-than-normal keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu with music and full-motion clips.
'Rolling Thunder' takes out its vengeance on Blu-ray with a strong 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1), but comes with several rough spots that make it difficult to warm up to. Much of the transfer shows poor resolution, especially in dark interiors where film grain becomes more apparent and noise-like. The picture also reveals a bit of degradation and discoloration in a few sequences. These and all other visible issues are age-related and clearly the result of the print used, which only means the source is in need of some serious restoration.
On the other hand, the transfer does come with as many positives as negatives, particularly in daylight exteriors. With sharp, well-balanced contrast levels, fine object and textural details are actually quite outstanding and revealing. Colors are bold and bright, especially the greens and reds, which remind viewers they're watching a high-def presentation. Blacks are far from perfect, but fairly stable nonetheless and provide decent levels of depth in some scenes.
Audio-wise, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack fares a bit better than the video. Staying true to the original sound design, the mono presentation provides an appreciably wide image with a great deal of presence and clarity. Dynamic range remains crisp and sharp during action sequences and every time a gun is fired. Atmospherics in the background are discrete and audible while acoustics in the many interiors are clear and detailed. Low-frequency effects are understandably limited, but appropriate to the on-screen action, adding some punch and weight when required. Dialogue reproduction is excellent and precise, making this a very good lossless mix for an entertaining revenge flick.
Studio Canal releases the movie with a small and rather disappointing set of supplements.
'Rolling Thunder' is a mostly forgotten actioner from 1977 about an ex-POW exacting justice on the men who killed his family. The film features great performances by William Devane and a very young Tommy Lee Jones. It's a terrific revenge/vigilante film from the imagination of the same writer who brought us 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull,' Paul Shrader. The Blu-ray is an improvement over previous home video editions, but the picture quality remains comparatively average while the audio presentation sounds pretty good. Supplements could be better but the overall package is still worth the price.