Synopsis: A recently returned Vietnam POW loses his family and right hand during a violent home invasion and seeks retribution against those responsible.
Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes, James Best, Dabney Coleman, Luke Askew
Director: John Flynn
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: When it was released in the summer of 1974, Death Wish became both a commercial hit and a hot-button topic of conversation in a country moving into the final year of the Vietnam War. After years of being inundated with reports of death that hit close to home, where was the joy in going to the movies and seeing such unrestrained violence against the (then-normalized) nuclear family? A counter-argument to that was why Death Wish earned such infamy; viewers flocked to the theater because there was a catharsis in seeing an ‘ordinary’ man (tough-as-nails and as handsome as one Charles Bronson) take the law into his own hands and get justice.
Death Wish spawned a series of copycats (not to mention four sequels and a 2018 remake) that focused on crude vigilantism above all else, with the story and character development often relegated to the backseat. These were quick, cheap pictures to make and get out to the local grindhouse or drive-ins for a fast buck, and every studio, from the most indie to respected production house, wanted to get in on the action somehow. By 1977, the Vietnam War had been over for two years, but those returning from the battle were only beginning to see the effects PTSD would have on their daily lives for years to come.
Maybe I’m setting up Rolling Thunder to be more prestigious than it is, but I wanted to separate it from the other Death Wish wannabes because it aspires to be more. An original script from Paul Schrader (who had Taxi Driver in theaters the year before), who wanted his friend John Milius to direct it, the film eventually landed with John Flynn. While Flynn gives the picture an elevated feel, I can only imagine what Milius might have done with Schrader’s script (even with revisions from Heywood Gould) and a cast headed by William Devane and a young Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs) at the start of his illustrious career.
Former POW Major Charles Rane (Devane, Testament) returns to his Texas home to find life has changed dramatically while he was away. His wife is seeing another man, and his son barely remembers the father that left for war when he was young. Struggling to adjust to daily life, he regresses to his strict air force ways, which only ostracizes him further from loved ones. Seen as a hometown hero, he’s awarded a new car and nearly $3,000 in silver dollars – a paltry compensation for the torture and years lost that put him far behind other men his age.
Unfortunately for Rane, just because he’s home doesn’t mean he’s safe. When four thieves arrive to steal the money they saw he was awarded, Rane is left disfigured and helpless to watch as his family is slain in front of him. Broken and alone, Rane rejects the assistance of friends during a renewed time of pain and opts instead to track down those responsible and make them pay for their actions. Now using a prosthetic hook that has replaced his mutilated hand, he fashions it as a raw weapon and begins to hunt down his assailants one by one.
Compared to similar films, Rolling Thunder isn’t as sleazy or hair-raising as it could have been. There’s ample violence on hand (pardon the pun), but Schrader/Gould and Flynn have helped to develop the characters and to set them well enough so that you know who they are and care what ultimately happens to them. No one in the film feels out of place, and you could see Devane making a home with the woman playing his wife and being shell-shocked to find she’s hasn’t been faithful to him while he was suffering in a POW camp. I also found the performance of Linda Haynes as a local girl that takes a shine to Devane to be rich with good moments.
It becomes more about Devane and Jones in the final act, and that’s when Rolling Thunder starts to feel more of the same and in line with the typical neo-vigilante films it shared a double bill with when it was released. There’s nothing wrong with a take-no-prisoners ending; by that point, the film has likely earned its ability to go big. Still, it would have been interesting to see it handle the extreme violence with as much consideration as it did with how it treats the pain of its characters.