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Under the Radar: 'Rolling Thunder'

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Mar 24, 2011 | 6:56am EDT

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Rolling Thunder PosterI love revenge films, I’m not sure that’s a very well kept secret at this point. There is something so unsettlingly satisfying about the moral certainty of this nefarious subgenre. Essentially what they amount to is streamlined justice devoid of any and all red tape and procedural ancillaries to impede the absolutes of right and wrong. When we become disillusioned with the legal system of the real world, revenge films are always there to reset our moral compasses. Recently, a long-lost personal favorite of mine was finally released on DVD. If you haven’t seen Rolling Thunder, you have been missing out and the time to correct this oversight is now.

Major Charles Rane was among several United States Air Force pilots to be shot down over Vietnam and spend many years in a POW camp. When he is finally released, his wife, his son, and the people of his hometown of San Antonio greet him as a hero. The citizenry present him with a brand new Cadillac and a set of over two thousand silver dollars; one for every day he was in confinement. Unfortunately, a certain criminal element gets wind of his gift and decides to requisition it for themselves. During the robbery, Maj. Rane loses his wife, his son, and his right arm. Now, with the help of an old Air Force buddy and a steel hook, Maj. Rane seeks to visit a little vengeance upon his foes.

What makes Rolling Thunder truly remarkable has less to do with the bloody satisfaction bestowed upon us by the film’s climax, but rather the fascinating character study that leads up to the impetus for revenge. Rolling Thunder is a film about Vietnam War veterans struggling to reconnect with the world they once knew after suffering so much during their tour of duty. Maj. Rane is a tragic figure before he ever loses his wife and son because, by the time he is reunited with them, he has lost his entire sense of identity and any and all notions of home. This makes the loss of his family all the more shattering as he was just attempting to reconnect with them. William Devane plays this role with quiet intensity and powerful empathy.

Don’t get me wrong, when the proverbial push comes to shove, Rolling Thunder does not skimp on the requisite violence. Maj. Rane hones his makeshift appendage into an extension of his primal fury; sharpening the hook into a lethal instrument of pain. But the subtle, nuanced character building leading up to the violence feeds into it so well and makes it all the more thrilling. Rane’s haunting experiences overseas, his post-traumatic single-mindedness, and his ever-percolating rage explode into one of the most honest expressions of revenge I’ve ever seen.

If for no other reason, the imperative for everyone to see Rolling Thunder boils down to three words: Tommy Lee Jones. He’s incredibly young here and it’s hard not to think of him in terms of the roles that defined him later in life. But Rolling Thunder will always be my favorite of Tommy Lee Jones’ performances. He, like William Devane, occupies the strong, silent type mold and you can always tell something dark is brewing just below the surface. But unlike Maj. Rane, and serving as an interesting juxtaposition, Jone’s Johnny Vohden is a man who only feels alive when he is in the midst of a brawl. So when Maj. Rane shows up and tells him he’s found the men responsible for the death of his family, he flashes a nearly imperceptible smile and matter-of-factly declares, “just let me get my gear.” What follows is a show of bravery and force that solidifies Tommy Lee Jones as one of cinema’s greatest badasses.

Rolling ThunderThe movie is well photographed and far more infused with subtext than its exploitation brethren. Much of the credit for the film’s greatness goes to writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). Schrader finds the humanity in his characters early and explores the psychological consequences of war when greeted with wanton greed and senseless violence once the soldiers return to native soil. You get the sense that what pushes Maj. Rane over the edge is that at least in Vietnam he felt there was a worthy cause behind the killing and inhumanity in that they were serving their country. But when people detached from war are willing to kill women and children for a lousy three grand, his urge to keep his anger at bay is obliterated.

Rolling Thunder was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino. The gang of thugs who murder Maj. Rane’s family are referred to as The Acuña Boys. This was adopted by QT as the name of a fast food chain that exists within the universe in which all his films take place (Jackie Brown and Deathproof both feature the logo prominently). It was also the name of QT’s short-lived distribution company that released several foreign and exploitation titles including Detroit 9000 and Chungking Express; oddly enough however not Rolling Thunder. For many years, the film could not be found on DVD. But now, through the magic of MGM’s limited edition archive collection, you can now order a copy that will be pressed upon request and sent to you. It’s as if each one were crafted just for you, which makes the experience all the more rewarding.

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