Sunday, 11 March 2012

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Country: USA

With the recent blu-ray release of Rolling Thunder courtesy of Studio Canal I thought it was high time I reacquainted myself with Major Charles Rane and his hook-handed vigilantism in the bordellos and bars of Mexico. For the last ten to fifteen years the film has been languishing in the sulphur pits of distribution hell, and in that time it has steadily built itself a cult reputation. This is in no small part due to Quentin Tarantino and his gushing masturbatory praise for the film. The fact that Tarantino is a big fan is just one indication of the films simplistic juvenilia. The second is a screenplay by Paul Schrader which completely recycles the themes and preoccupations of his earlier effort Taxi Driver (1976), but chooses to omit questions of social and political fragmentation in favour of a highly personalised odyssey of violence and revenge. Although both films share a number of themes and plot points (for example both films conclude with a blood drenched finale in a whorehouse) Taxi Driver possesses an awareness and intelligence that is entirely lacking in Rolling Thunder. If the two films were relatives then Rolling Thunder would be the immature and irritating younger brother. The film has the feel of a quick exercise for Mr. Schrader, certain aspects feel underdeveloped, and certain aspects just make no sense at all. For example why on earth would a quartet of hard nosed bastards torture Charles Rane, and then shoot his wife and kid before his very eyes, all for a lousy $2,000? It all seems a little over the top and unnecessary; the plot hinges on a number of absurd contrivances, the most ridiculous of which sees Rane end up with a hook instead of a hand!

It’s very unusual for me to say this about a vigilante/revenge narrative, but the weakest part of Rolling Thunder is the second half in which Rane hunts down his assailants. Until the action shifts to Mexico the film is a very effective examination of the way in which Rane (William Devane) attempts to readjust to civilian life. His monochrome dreams are constantly haunted by the memories of his imprisonment, his mind and body struggle to understand his new found sense of liberty, and behavioural patterns so ingrained after years of hardship and brutality rebel against his desire for a sense of normality. Rane will soon be fighting a war on two fronts; a physical war against the thugs who rob him of his family and his hand, and a psychological war in which his state of mental anguish does battle with the tedium of  modernity. However some spice is provided by the fact that his wife has had an affair in his absence and his set to remarry, but like everything else Rane accepts this news with a cold hard stare. William Devane does rather a lot of this; in some quarters Devane’s performance is hailed as exemplary, but my question is what performance? Devane shows off a repertoire of two expressions; grim faced, and even grimmer faced. The man could certainly win a staring competition, but awards for acting? On the evidence of this, not very likely.

However what Devane does do very well is communicate to the audience that Rane is a walking volcano, just waiting to explode; some of the most memorable and awkward scenes in Rolling Thunder follow Rane as he is forced to attend civic meetings and accept well meaning gifts from the townspeople. These gifts include the $2,000 worth of silver dollars that cause all the problems later, and a red Cadillac, made all the more striking as it kicks up the dust in the borderlands. They are tense moments because the screenplay has coiled the spring and the audience is not sure until later how it will unwind. That it unwinds within the predictable and clichéd territory of the vigilante/revenge flick has to rate as a major disappointment. The film soon heads into the rampant machismo of the western as Rane is forced to cross the border to mete out his own personal brand of justice. The moment he does this the good work of the first half is pretty much undone and we are into routine shoot-em-up territory, the like of which was ten-a-penny in the Grindhouse’s and drive-in’s of the 1970’s. It is worth noting the contribution of  Tommy Lee Jones who offers strong support as another disenfranchised and alienated soldier. He has the best moment in the film when Rane comes to his house, and tells him he has located the evildoers that wronged him;  with a smile he simply says “I’ll just get my gear”. It’s a smile of relief, the two men have renewed purpose, they are empty and hollow shells without the promise of violence.

A subplot involving Rane’s relationship with Linda (Linda Haynes) doesn’t really go anywhere, apart from to indicate that it’s possible to be alienated and alone without having suffered the traumas of war. The final shootout in a Mexican whorehouse doesn’t work anywhere near as well as Travis Bickle’s one man bloodbath at the conclusion of Taxi Driver, and this is largely due to indistinctive and uninspired direction from John Flynn. The first half of Rolling Thunder works incredibly well as an intense character study and really gets to grips with the problems Rane faces in society; but the descent into the murky world of stereotype and racism in the second half is damaging to the film. The Mexican people we encounter are never anything other than sleazy and vile, and the locations serve to emphasise the murky and disgusting cesspool that Rane must wade through in order to exact his revenge. The film lacks an emotional core; even when Rane his having his hand destroyed in the waste disposal chute we don’t feel any sympathy for him. Rolling Thunder is an empty and heartless exercise, but it operates on a base level that means it is extremely enjoyable to watch; vigilante films are always very entertaining and I like them, but I like them against my better judgement.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I thought Tommy Lee Jones was beyond convincing in this role - how the character seemed to be filled with joy and life only as he was slaughtering people - like some high-wattage happy light went on in his head.

    Not sure I agree with you about John Flynn's direction. I would call in minimalist as opposed to uninspired. Many of his films have the same studied, flat affect. It's a style that, I think, brings great believability to an action or crime film. Not sure a more "dramatic" approach could have given Rane his dead soul.

    Plus, I thought Linda Haynes proved herself a real presence on screen. Too damn bad we never so much more from her.

  2. Hi there Mykal - good to hear from you :-)

    I get the distinct impression that you like ROLLING THUNDER and the directorial skills of John Flynn a lot more than I. That's why "indistintive and uninspired" for me becomes a positive in the shape of "minimalist" to you. Yeah I did pick out Tommy Lee Jones in the review, and personally I think he was the best thing about the film.

    Apologies for totally forgetting to review THE OUTFIT, it comepletely slipped my mind. I'll get onto it as soon as I can.

  3. No worries. Whenever it makes it to the DVD player is cool. Yes, I've always had a likeness for Flynn's style. I've heard him called a "poor man's Don Siegel," but I think he has a distinctive style that is very 70s.

  4. What we have here, Shaun good buddy, is one of those rare instances, where it at least seems as though, I liked a film a whole lot more than you did. That said, I will not totally disagree with your take on it, nor will I try to defend this picture with glee. To do so on a vigilante flick, would be in poor taste indeed. I do see your point about certain plot issues, namely that the bad guys would torture and murder for so little money. That to me, though, made the slaughtering of Rane's family all the more sickening. And I liked John Flynn's directing style in this and THE OUTFIT. I also think the shootout at the end is as an effective shootout as you can find this side of the Atlantic. Basically, I love the grimy, sweaty, bleakness this one possesses.

  5. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy ROLLING THUNDER, but my enjoyment of it lay in its basic qualities as a vigilante movie. The problem is that aspires to be much more than that, and in my view fails. It's been ten years between drinks for this film, and in that decade the stock of ROLLING THUNDER has risen and risen. I'm not entirely sure why this is. I've always preferred THE EXTERMINATOR myself, which is another Returning Veteran/Vigilante film. The difference is that THE EXTERMINATOR doesn't have pretensions beyond the limitations of its form.

    It does make the slaughter of Rane's family more sickening, but it also makes it feel more contrived. It is also an incredibly badly acted scene...well it was to me anyway. I thought this was a perfectly serviceable effort, and it was nice to revist it on blu-ray, but in terms of Paul Schrader's development, this has to rate as a huge disappointment after TAXI DRIVER.

  6. Fair comment, Shaun. I can see why you highlighted the opening 30 minutes or so, which certainly are more focused and engaging (the scenes highlighting Rane's masochism are particularly well done).

    Schrader seems to unapologetically embrace the delights of exploitation cinema in the second half, and that's largely how I approach the film overall.

    After the hell of shoddy bootlegs, I really do have to pick up the new UK Blu-Ray.

  7. Yes the scene where he replicates the rope torture is particularly compelling. The first 30-40 minutes of the film just feels a lot tighter and disciplined; the film seems to drift and lose shape in the second half. I think TAXI DRIVER is largely an exploitation film as well, but it was imbued with the intelligence of a very gifted director and lead actor at the height of their powers - Scorcese/De Niro vs. Flynn/Devane, I think that's a knockout in the 1st round to the former.

    If I'm being ultra picky and critical I have to say that Studio Canal's blu-ray of is not all that special. Its an improvement of course, especially to what we have been used to, but I couldn't help feeling that it was something of a missed opportunity on their part. Nevertheless it still remains the best version of ROLLING THUNDER on the market.

  8. Excellent review, Shaun. I have great affection for the movie and didn't see the Mexicans involvement as racist, but more akin to the Vietnamese when Rane and his friend were about to go to war all over again. Not quite off topic, I have a family member on my mothers side who still has to take medication for things he experienced over there. And incidentally, said family member has a striking resemblance to Chuck Norris!

  9. It was more the unsophisticated stereotypical depictions of Mexico and its denizens I was referring too Brian. The fault is with Schrader and his screenplay. I guess it was felt he could do no wrong at this stage in his career? An interesting anecdote about your family member, I can't begin to imagine the baggage some people are carrying around with. I guess we are both extremely lucky to have been in an age when conscription has not been neccessary.


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