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 in 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 to make 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. The 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
Shout! Factory brings 'Rolling Thunder' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc inside a blue, eco-elite case with reversible cover art. The other side shows a reprint of the 1978 Japanese poster. At startup, the disc goes straight a menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
Major Charlie Rane wields his furious vengeance with a strong and energetic 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, but it's also a bit rough around the edges. Compared to last year's Studio Canal release in the UK, this Blu-ray appears practically identical with a good deal of poorly-resolved sequences and showing a very heavy, almost noisy grain structure. Several moments comes with white specks, light scratches and some brown discoloration. And like that previous release, this is the result of the condition and age of the source, not the encode, which means the film could benefit tremendously from a proper restoration and remaster.
Thankfully, the rest of the 1.85:1 image offers just as many positives and negatives, starting with several excellent daylight exteriors. Contrast is bright and well-balanced with crisp, clean whites throughout while black levels are decently rendered and fairly deep, though it's far from perfect and looking pretty murky in some spots with average delineation. The palette is generally bold and accurately rendered with natural skin tones. Fine object and textural details can be quite distinct in a few areas with sharp, resolute lines in the trees, buildings and hair of the cast. Overall, it's passable high-def presentation fans will appreciate.
Like the video, this DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is near identical to UK edition, which is a good thing as it stays true to the original design. The front soundstage delivers a clean and broad image with a great sense of spatial presence. The mid-range is appreciably detailed and crisp with excellent clarity in the upper frequencies. The only issue to note is towards the end during the final showdown when a few gunshots seemed a tad noisy and distorted. Background activity remains clear and discrete while acoustics during interior scenes are quite distinct. Understandably, there's not much going on in the low-end department, but bass is appropriate and weighty, particular with the music. Dialogue reproduction is intelligible and precise throughout, making this a satisfying lossless mix for a classic revenge flick.
'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.