Blu-ray Review: ROLLING THUNDER

Brian reviews the new Blu-ray of John Flynn's revenge masterpiece.

The "guy comes home from Vietnam and has trouble adjusting" genre is a pretty vast one (Scarred Vietnam Vet Movie A Day, coming soon?), but most of the ones I've seen don't suggest that killing folks is a good idea. Rolling Thunder, in a strange (and satisfying!) way, more or less seems to be saying "These guys are damaged, but it's helpful to have those skills because their home life bores them to tears." Tommy Lee Jones' character only smiles once in the entire film - when he's blowing some guy away for the crime of being associated with someone who killed his buddy's family. I don't know if it was intentional or just an unavoidable part of the film's grindhouse-y approach (and thus, lasting appeal), but either way - if you want to use a film to demonstrate the negative effects of war, this would not be a good choice.

However, if you want an immensely satisfying, badass revenge film, this 1977 effort from John Flynn (The Outfit, Lock Up, and most importantly Out For Justice, Seagal's best film in my opinion) should do the trick and then some. On a narrative level, it's so simple that it's almost hard to describe without getting into spoiler territory: POWs Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and his best friend/soldier John (Jones) return to Texas after seven years of imprisonment and torture, and as with all movies of this type, they find it hard to get back into their old lives. Jones is clearly bored out of his mind by his family (which includes Paul Partain, best known as the obnoxious Franklin from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and Devane discovers that his son, only an infant when he left, has been more or less raised by another man, an old friend of his that his wife has decided to marry. But he is welcomed as a hero by the town, and given a new convertible as well as over two thousand dollars' worth of silver coins (one coin for each day he was gone) - which makes him a target for some lowlifes who break into his home and demand he hand it all over. His familiarity with torture allows him some resistance they weren't expecting - even after they destroy his hand in a garbage disposal - but the kid gives in easily and hands over the money, at which point the thugs shoot them all. Rane survives, his wife and son do not.

You can pretty much guess what happens after, but it goes about it in a way that's much different than Death Sentence (another under-appreciated film of this type) or The Crow or whatever revenge movie you prefer. For starters, he doesn't take them out one at a time like you'd expect, nor do we spend much time with them or give them much of a personality. Instead, Rane goes about his revenge rather casually; he tracks them down with the assistance of a local gal who is smitten with him, and once he's got their location (a Mexican whorehouse) he recruits an all too eager to help Jones to help him to clean them up pretty much all at once. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie with a crowd a few years back, and the appreciative applause at Jones' response to Devane saying "I found the guys who killed my son" is probably one of my top 10 all time favorite moviegoing moments - I wouldn't dare spoil the line here.

Wait, spoil? Yes, while available on VHS throughout its run, the film has unfortunately become a bit obscure to this generation, as it was never released on DVD until 2011 (and even that was just one of those terrible MGM "on demand" discs). This Shout! Factory Blu-ray release is pretty much its first real presentation in over 20 years (in region 1 anyway), so hopefully it will start growing the audience it deserves. In fact, it wasn't even properly released theatrically; it was originally set to be released by Fox, but they were afraid to do so when the film came back as violent as it was, and thus sold it to the smaller American International. I couldn't find any reports of its box office gross, which means it was probably pretty small (even though they didn't track it back then like they do now, you can still find the gross for '70s films of note), but luckily somewhere along the line Quentin Tarantino saw it and loved it (he even named his distribution label after it), which kept its NAME floating around for all these years until now, where we can finally enjoy it on a proper home video format.

It's a good transfer; it won't blow anyone away due to the occasional print damage, but detail and color are spot on and the 2.0 sound is crisp and clear, making it a win. To sweeten the deal, Shout! has assembled Devane, Jones, stunt coordinator Billy Burton, and writers Heywood Gould and Paul Schrader for new interviews about the film's creation, production and legacy. Flynn isn't mentioned much, for some reason, but they do go into the rather sore subject of the film's script - Schrader wrote it originally to be a bit more biting and damning of the US involvement with the war and how they turn these men into killers, but Gould's rewrites softened all of that and made it a bit more "sentimental." Interestingly, Devane seems to prefer the changes, while Jones thought the script was better originally (everyone is filmed separately, so it's hard to tell if there's any animosity between any party). I'd be curious to read Schrader's original draft (if the IMDb trivia is to be believed, Rane just starts gunning down Mexicans at random, paralleling Schrader's thoughts on our involvement in Vietnam itself), but at least the final product is still an immensely satisfying entry in the badass cinema canon.

Some promotional material rounds things out (including one poster that was clearly aiming to attract fans of Taxi Driver; the trailer also played up the "From the creator of" angle); it's not a full blown special edition (and unlike most Shout! Blu releases, there's no DVD bonus disc), but it'd be worth the current $14.99 price even if it was just the movie anyway. I can't spoil the ending, but if you ever find a revenge movie of this type with a more satisfying final minute, feel free to let me know. And someone needs to program a John Flynn retrospective at the New Bev or Egyptian (or hell, do it at the Alamo! I'd fly out for that!).

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