Playing like a relic from a forgotten age rather than a simple revenge thriller set on the Mexican border, John Flynn’s violent 1977 movie Rolling Thunder garnered a shiny DVD and Blu-Ray release late last year that was welcomed by it’s substantial, cult following. Tarantino regularly puts this in his “All Time Top 10” and it’s easy to see why, William Devane’s anti hero Major Charles Rane could be found in any sensible lineage leading to The Bride in the Kill Bill films.
Based on a Paul Schrader story of a racist vigilante cleaning up a Texan town, Schrader saw Thunder as a companion piece to Taxi Driver but when Heywood Gould came on board the script was changed and Schrader’s Charles Rane turned into a war hero, returning from six years imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Vietcong. Meeting a son he barely knows and finding his wife has chosen another man during the uncertainty barely fazes Rane, stuck as he is, reliving the tortures at night. Worsening the situation somewhat, a gang of not nice men at all break into Rane’s house, torture him and eventually eviscerate his hand in the waste disposal unit all to discover the location of the 2000 silver dollars given to Rane as a bravery gift by the city of San Antonio. As an afterthought they casually shoot his wife and son. Telling the police he has no memory of the attackers Major Charles Rane sharpens his new hook hand, calls his old prison camp buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and heads on down to Mexico…..
Generally, throwing Vietnam war vet, death of wife and child, Tex Mex gangsters and hook hand into the mix should produce a guilty pleasure best enjoyed slightly inebriated. However, Flynn’s enthusiastic direction and Devane’s steely eyed performance lift this way above simple exploitation fare, injecting knowledgeable storytelling and empathy for a man hurting inside and out. Linda Haynes helps out with a warm and funny turn as a waitress drawn to the darkness in Major Rane, she acts as his conscience, warning him (and us) of the dangers of going so far as to never be allowed back. Lawrenson Driscoll has an almost Scatman Crothers in the Shining journey across Texas and the border to help Rane before meeting an inevitable end. Best of all the supporting cast however is a young, taciturn Tommy Lee Jones.
Tommy Lee Jones is deployed as a sort of retro active Chekhov’s Gun here. It being impossible to imagine that after being shown Tommy Lee Jones at the start of the film he will not be there at the end, taking names and tagging toes. Jones obliges, closing the story with Devane in a gutsy, visceral shootout in a Mexican brothel that, ranking wise for such things, is far better than the climax of From Dusk Till Dawn but not quite as engaging (or self knowing) as the whorehouse conclusion in the superlative The Way of the Gun. Just so you know.
Rolling Thunder might be the first film ever to understay it’s welcome, the credits rolling almost as soon as the shooting stops which is just as it should be. Well done to John Flynn and a lesson for everyone.