I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Rolling Thunder

This great overlooked revenge movie was one of if not the first movie to deal with the effects of the Vietnam War. With a script by Paul Schrader (rewritten by another dude) it works on two levels, as a raw exploitation picture and as a depressing statement about the mess our country was in at the time. Fortunately we never repeated those mistakes ever again so this movie is completely irrelevant now and only good as a curiosity.

The picture opens with corny music as heroic Vietnam POWs arrive home at an airport, among them William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Devane will be our protagonist this evening, and as he pretends to enjoy the ceremony honoring him as a great american hero, you can tell right off the bat that he’s not quite there. He’s got a wife and kid waiting for him, and the kid doesn’t even remember him he’s been gone so long. Some guy named Cliff is there to give them a ride home. “You remember Cliff?” the wife says innocently, and you fuckin know what that means.

Rolling ThunderThe wife left the house exactly how it was, to make the return more comfortable for him. And that makes you think how fucked up it would be to be locked up for years and all you want to do is come home, but then when you get there you don’t even recognize it. That would suck, and he didn’t get this. But what also sucks that he did get is his wife immediately tells him she’s been fuckin Cliff and they’re gonna have to get a divorce. There is a great scene where Cliff tries to have a man to man talk with him, and brings him a beer. You expect the major to chew Cliff out but he’s just real nice about it, which makes it so much creepier. Instead of beating up Cliff he makes him uncomfortable by pressuring him into pulling up his arms behind his back like his torturers did to him in ‘Nam. And the major almost seems to enjoy it. Making Cliff uncomfortable. Then all he does is tell him, “I’d appreciate it if you don’t call my son a runt.”

Now I already mentioned there’s gonna be some revenge involved in this picture, but it’s actually not against Cliff. Instead, there is a ceremony where a department store awards the major with a silver dollar for every day he was locked up – somewhere around $2500. Afterwards, a bunch of rednecks (including Roscoe P. Coltrane from the Dukes of Hazzard) show up at his house to try to force him to give them the coins.

Now look, I know I’m one to talk, but these here are some dumb fuckin criminals. I mean no offense to the handicapped but this is one retarded fucking crime. The Radio of home invasions. These guys are stealing $2,500, but they bring like 5 guys. If they’re splitting it five ways, that’s only $500 each, right? And the way they choose to go about getting this $500? By torturing a man who is famous for being tortured for years on end. The exact guy that you should probably not want to torture information out of. Because obviously the guy knows what he’s doing when it comes to getting tortured.

Worse, they end up killing his wife and kid, and stuffing his hand in the garbage disposal. So it’s double murder plus, for 500 fucking silver dollars. If they can even carry them. Nice fucking plan, fellas.

Anyway, soon after our guy gets out of the hospital with a hook on his hand he starts tracking the motherfuckers that did this to him, trying to find their whereabouts, so that the revenge can take place. Once he catches their scent he goes out to visit his old war buddy Tommy Lee Jones. This is another great scene because the whole family is there (including brother-in-law Paul Partain, who played the obnoxious Franklin in TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), nobody knows what’s up and they’re all gonna have dinner together. But Devane takes Tommy Lee aside and says, “I found him.” “Found who?” “The sonofabitch that killed my son.”

Tommy Lee doesn’t even hesitate, he says, “I’ll go get some equipment,” and starts getting ready to go kill the motherfucker. And as they’re about to start supper the family is kind of confused because William and Tommy suddenly leave, completely suited up in their uniforms.

It’s a simple movie but it’s a good one. So much tension and so much that is obviously going on that the characters never talk about. It’s a little bit TAXI DRIVER, a little bit FIRST BLOOD. I guess Schrader said that in his version there was no family, the guy was just a maniac because he was so damaged by the war. He seems to think the family was Hollywood bullshit, but I disagree. It creates so much great tension, and if you read up on the divorce rates, domestic violence etc. that happens in military families (not even POW) it is clear that this has a basis in reality. I mean coming home to find out your wife fell in love with somebody else was a common experience after Vietnam, and it will be now. I just read today about a soldier here in Washington State who they think killed his wife and left her in the bath tub. His dad said, “That’s not my son. My son is still in Iraq, and for that you can thank George W. Bush.” I think the major’s dad could’ve said the same thing about his son, although you probably should thank his captors and various other factions. Bush was playing all day water volleyball at that time and obviously cannot be blamed for these problems.

The director, John Flynn, also did the pretty good THE OUTFIT (with Robert Duvall as Richard Stark’s Parker character, who you know and love from POINT BLANK and PAYBACK). And he did OUT FOR JUSTICE, which for my money is Steven Seagal’s grittiest and best directed movie, even if Seagal does a bad Italian-american accent for the whole thing. Apparently his first movie THE SERGEANT, not available on video, had Rod Steiger as a drill sergeant who hides his attraction to new recruit John Philip Law by treating him like shit. Unfortunately other than that the rest of his filmography is pretty uninteresting.

Anyway this a real good one and highly recommended for all those trying to catch up on the ’70s badass classics. Along with POINT BLANK it is high on my list of pictures sorely needing a DVD release.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, April 24th, 2004 at 11:02 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “Rolling Thunder”

  1. I’ve read Schrader’s draft (which is very similar to the finished film–really, only a few things were changed) and the family IS in there. In fact, I think there’s MORE material with Raine’s wife and son.

    One really crazy thing that was cut was that at one point Raine went to a drive in movie and parked next to…Travis Bickle. Yes, THAT Travis Bickle. Who is identified in the script as “Travis Bickle.” (It’s not clear if it’s a drive-in movie so Travis can be seen in the taxi cab.) Tarantino is well known to be a huge fan of this movie, and I can only wonder if he managed to get a hold of this script, read that scene, and it somehow influenced Kill Bill years later.

  2. whoaaaaaa, Travis Bickle originally had a cameo? that would have been awesome

  3. CaseyF*ckinRyback

    July 9th, 2011 at 2:35 am

    I’ve been obsessed with getting hold of this flick since reading this review… Today I discover that (in the UK anyway) we are getting both a DVD and a Blu-Ray release on September 19th! Good times!

  4. Thought I’d post a link to my hand-drawn fan poster to this classic of bad-ass cinema: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=328583050567543&set=a.147331458692704.32802.147320312027152&type=3&theater

    Also, the funny thing about the Bickle cameo in the script is that Schrader literally writes: “You might know this character from another script of mine called TAXI DRIVER”

  5. Just watched this. Good stuff. I liked the first section with the character drama of the soldiers trying to fit back into society, as well as Jones’s straight-faced badass lines. Like some other 70s movies of its ilk it gets a bit messy in the second act, making the buildup to the climax a little less relentless, but perhaps also a bit more realistic with its uncomfortable “love interest” subplot where he’s a bit of a shit to his groupie, almost gets her assaulted, gets himself beaten up, etc.

    I always liked William Devane. One of those reliable character actors. As far as I know he didn’t get too many leading movie roles, which I personally put down to the weirdly brushy helmet hair. I can’t think of too many leading men, even in the 70s, who managed to carry off the helmet hair look.

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