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Rolling Thunder Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 24, 2012 at 12:22 AM

    Rolling Thunder Review

    This one's for Rolling Thunder John, wherever you ended up, mate!

    Haunted Vietnam Veterans! Redneck bully-boy gangs! A family massacred! Old Testament revenge writ large across the screen! Pure American seventies exploitation roars out alongside riotous shotgun-blasts and traditional eye-for-an-eye retribution as a nation continues to tear itself apart with hypocritical zeal over a war it should never have gotten itself involved in. The conflict in South East Asia was certainly good for one thing – the movies that tumbled out of the gaping, ragged fissures in its collective psyche. Without it, Hollywood would still have been churning out conventional Westerns by the wagon-full.

    Filmmakers needed a desperate, hellish war to plunder, dissect, re-fight and atone for … and Vietnam has been its self-perpetuating meal-ticket.

    "Can't just let it slide, Major. They don't have any right to live.”

    Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane) has been the unlucky guest of malevolent captors in the Hanoi Hilton. He has been systematically brutalised and tortured and what little humanity he has left has retreated to a lonely cave deep within his soul. When he is eventually released and returned to the States, he and several other former captives, including his buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), receive a reluctant hero's welcome. But the homecoming is bittersweet. His wife has now taken up with another man, old family friend and local cop, Cliff (Lawrison Driscoll), and the harrowing flashbacks he has to the only form of life that he could ever take for granted – that of incarceration and regular beatings – mean that a conventional existence in society is highly unlikely. Just sitting in his own house is acutely uncomfortable, and he struggles to find common-ground with a son who barely recognises him. But the predators that exist within that so-called civilised society he supposedly fought for soon come circling. Intent on stealing the trunk of silver dollars that he was bestowed in a sham of a carnival welcome, a vicious gang of good ol' boys invade Rane's home and torment and torture him to make him reveal their whereabouts. But Rane is used to this sort of treatment and he can go on with it for much longer than they could dish it out. Even when they put his hand in the sink disposal unit and slowly grind it away, he refuses to talk. And then his wife and his son return home.

    Well, you can guess the rest, can't you?

    I mean, you can hear the trailer voiceover guy doing his thing in your head. “They killed his wife and son. They took his hand and left him for dead. But they messed with the wrong man. Major Charles Rane is not dead … and soon he will be coming for them … with payback on his mind.”

    So, you pretty much know where this is going to go. The setting is the South, the atmosphere is dripping with simmering, dust-choked rage, and the film meanders, never runs, through the shut-away darkness and evil that resides in the heart of Man. We want Rane to kick-ass. We want him to corner each and every one of these cowboy scumbags and tear them to pieces. But both director John Flynn and drawling star William Devane seem determined that Rane should never come across as a sort of charismatic vigilante that we can totally side with. We're with him every step of the way … but I doubt very much you'd invite him out for a drink. In many ways, Rane harks back to the oaters of old. A man of very few words, and an expression that simply never changes, he could easily be the Civil War veteran come back to town to find it in the grip of a corrupt cattle-baron. He's done fighting and, as far as he is concerned, his war is over. He'll take up arms again when it is the only possible option left open to him … but, somehow, he's always known that he'll never again be allowed to live the quiet life.

    It is true that Robert Ginty in The Exterminator and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver are both portraying more immediately arresting characters whom we sympathise with and try to understand, but this is surely because we can get inside their heads. Devane expertly shuts off the valve to all emotions and simply gets on with the task at-hand because he is programmed like an automaton. Getting inside his head would be like opening the door to an empty room. If you look closer, you'll find that the cracks have been papered-over and papered-over again and again. It's not a truly convincing attitude, I suppose, but this blankness is still a perfectly valid one and Devane handles what is an unusual and difficult character with commitment and infamously stoic resolve. He is like the lobotomised flip-side of Stacy Keach's traumatised officer in The Ninth Configuration, another film that contains an utterly awesome fight-back sequence. He has been pushed too far and finally acts entirely upon impulses that he thought had been beaten out of him.

    A poignant and ironic twist on the war back home scenario sees to it that the sun-kissed Texan girl, Linda Forchet, who wore a POW bracelet for Rane during his long years of captivity subsequently becomes his loyal confidante and companion in the quest for revenge. Rather poetically, she swaps the long-distance sanctimony of pining back home for a man she's never met for sitting by his hospital bed and nursing him back to health once he's been gunned-down on American soil. Played by Linda Haynes, she is a pure gun-totin' tomboy, desperate for escape and adventure, and for love, but the fact that Rane deliberately uses her as both bait and calling-card during his search-and-destroy mission continues to reveal that crucial lack of authentic empathy that he has with his fellow man. She does cut through that kevlar-coated exterior, though, and Haynes is very good in the role, even if she does become somewhat short-changed and forgotten about once we roll thunderously to that brazenly macho climax. And she looks mighty fine indulging in some target practice down at the creek.

    The original story and screenplay were written by Paul Schrader, who had penned Taxi Driver for Scorsese, so he was no stranger to the theme of disenfranchised soldiers struggling to adjust to sick and morally bankrupt civilian life. And this is where Rolling Thunder strikes out into a more psychological stance than many of its more overtly action-packed ilk would assume. An early and uncomfortable scene has Cliff attempting to explain, man to man, what has been happening between himself and Rane's wife during the Major's long absence. Rane already knows and accepts the truth, but he insists on showing Cliff just how his captors treated him by having the deputy tie his arms and hoist them up behind his back into a terrible stress position. Rane wants him to apply more pressure, until he can hear the bones crack, but Cliff is hugely upset by the act and can't continue, sweat pouring from him. This is the sort of scene that you simply cannot take at face value. "You learn to love the rope,” explains Rane, but what is he really saying? Is he showing Cliff how strong he is, how he can take anything that is thrown at him as a macho posture of stalwart defiance? Is he testing the man to see how much more damage he's willing to do to him? No. He's admitting to his friend that he can only survive by submitting to those that persecute him. He's saying to him that he's accepted the situation of a failed marriage by inferring that his only real relationship now is with pain … with the rope, as it were. It is a difficult sequence, and one with some unnerving layers to peel back, and some equally upsetting answers given up. Interestingly, the script was co-written by Heywood Gould, the man whose early memoirs would form the basis of the Tom Cruise pout 'n' preen-fest, Cocktail, but he also knew a thing or two about the more cynical side of humanity. He would go to adapt Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil and write the classic Fort Apache: The Bronx. Still, I wish that both scribes had fought to place more of these complexities in the film, because Charles Rane could have become one the most formidable of avengers with this darkly self-contained illustration of a man gone beyond the threshold, and embracing what he finds there.

    Of course, the rampaging ex-army genre would literally explode once David Morrell's literary uber-warrior with an even more uber-sized chip on his shoulder, Johnny Rambo, battled his way onto the big screen. The bodycount would rise almost exponentially and the crucial thing was that, although almost always motivated by persecution and a desire for revenge, these rugged anti-heroes would punctuate their celluloid exploits with frequent bouts of righteous violence. Flynn's film, on the other hand (or hook), is a much more sedate affair. It builds towards the climactic showdown like one of the more slow-burning psychological Westerns of the fifties. The little minor encounters that chapterise Rane's search for the nasty felons down Mexico-way lack a bit of clout and coherence. His detective work is threadbare to say the least, but I think that the film plays an interesting move by pitching the Major up against one of the main antagonists – the great and eternal bad-boy cowpoke, Luke Askew - in a genuinely surprise meeting. Shot with deliberate camera-standoff, these sequences lack the gravity that mainstream thrillers would usually employ, but this doesn’t lessen the fun to be had from them. That medical hook, that we’ve seen Rane grinding down to a point in his workshed, just has to be brought into play … and I don’t care if you’re male or female, animal, vegetable or eunuch, you’re gonna squirm when he slams it into a vulnerable groin and then goes for a walk, hauling his bug-eyed cargo with him.

    Whenever I've discussed this film, people would always remember the hook and the final shootout, but little else. Yet, they have all spoken about this mysterious, mist-enshrouded actioner with a sort of awe and reverence. Whilst the momentum of the film is largely stagnant, the dialogue muted and introspective and the main characters wilfully internalised and emotionless, there is something so grandly cathartic about the anticipation of payback that the image of a steely-eyed and hook-handed major sits just right in that deep, dark core that all lovers of vengeance-flicks have within them. But there are people who remain bemused by the home-invasion sequence because it has none of the high drama and agonising suspense that you would normally expect from a scene like this. But there are two vital reasons for why Flynn, who would explore heroic retaliation with Stallone in Lock-Up and Seagal in Out For Justice plays it out like this. Firstly, it is shown predominantly from Rane's point of view. He's a man who has seen it all and suffered it all before. He's shut off from the extremes of emotion that such circumstances would provoke in most. He knows all too well the levels of cruelty that men are capable of, and even if this is his own family getting murdered those basic humanistic traits have been wiped clear from his consciousness. Thus, Flynn puts us in Rane's mindset – as a passive and helpless observer, the condition that the character has become accustomed to. Secondly, there is something possibly even more realistic about how this situation pans-out. Rane is in pain and lying on the floor. He doesn't see his wife and son getting shot, so nor do we. This isn't Sgt. Barnes executing an innocent woman in front of her family in Platoon and nor is it Max Rockantansky witnessing his wife and baby getting mown-down by the Toecutter in Mad Max. The shock comes from suddenness of it all – just a flippant and casual note of callous finality. In this way, the film is less cause than effect … and, arguably, tougher for it.

    "I found them.”

    "Who?”

    "The men who killed my son.”

    "I'll just get my gear.”

    No questioning it. No messing about. No hesitation. Let's just do it, then. Gotta love that.

    Tommy Lee Jones, looking lean and incredibly youthful without all those crags that have come to characterise him, is superb. Giving what would become his trademark style of quiet, acidic underplaying, he nevertheless erupts into primal violence when the time is right and his old companion from 'Nam comes calling with a new mission in mind. One particular moment of knife-work is undertaken with precisely the sort of savagery that would make his later bouts with the blade in Under Siege and The Hunted so grimly unpredictable and ferocious. Jones would play another aggrieved veteran in the great, yet curiously unsung TV thriller, The Park Is Mine, in which his discarded and forgotten war hero takes over Central Park to draw awareness and public backing for all those other veterans that society has shunned. In some ways, that could be considered as a direct follow-on for his character of the troubled Sgt. Vohden.

    And now, folks, let's take a look at that final shootout, as it is a classic of the form. Obviously, this section is intended for fans of the film and is meant to be taken in the gung-ho spirit of things. If you haven't seen the movie, then I advise that you skip ahead to where the bullet-chewed italics end because this is designed as a celebration of what many consider to be a barnstorming genre set-piece.

    Infiltrating the whorehouse in which the gang, their number now swollen to around fourteen, are holed-up, Flynn establishes an immediate ballistic connection to The Wild Bunch and Taxi Driver. Rane and Johnny are taking the fight to the enemy. Johnny goes in the front door, bedecked in his Army regalia and picks up a girl with surly indifference. Cassie Yates, who seemed to get her kit off in a variety of whoreish roles during the 70's, takes him to a room upstairs and begins to do what she does best. Meanwhile, Rane, in full Air Force uniform, has taken out the guy posted by the rear fire-escape and calmly entered the building. Flynn directs this set-up with matter-of-fact deliberation, alternating from Rane to Johnny without fuss or any overt clue as to what will follow. This deception is methodical, Flynn has played the entire thing straight down the line and newcomers have no idea of just how bludgeoning the wrath and fury being locked and loaded is going to be when it eventually goes down.

    And listen to the music from Barry De Vorzon that has begun to climb in anger beneath this knuckle-gnawing set-up, slowly building in a tonal pyramid of utter animosity. This is the score's interpretation of the film's title. We heard it earlier as Rane lost his hand in the kitchen sink. A surge of deep, grinding bass, reverberating piano and rattling percussion that growls like a storm as Rane stands outside the door of the bedroom that the gang's ostensible leader, Texan (James Best), is languishing inside. It reaches an ominous peak as Rane kicks the door in and advances, shotgun first. “It's your time, boy,” he drawls, and as the guy reaches for the gun on the beside table, he blows his outstretched hand to shreds.

    "What the f*ck are you doin'?” enquires Yates' whore incredulously as Johnny begins to assemble his own shotgun in a cheeky metaphor for the handling that his own “weapon” has just been getting.

    "I'm gonna kill a bunch of people,” he deadpans. Only Tommy Lee Jones could forego some foreplay from Cassie Yates so dutifully.

    It's delicious. So simple. So effective. The editing becomes snap-taut, as you would expect from Frank P. Keller, the man who cut together Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Click-clack. We move from one to the other as they systematically eradicate the various gang-members. I love the moment when Johnny first emerges from his room – one beat, the door opens to reveal him standing there with a business-like nod to Rane … the next, he zips himself up. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. No wasted footage, no extraneous shots for decoration … unless you count the naked asses bouncing down the corridor in panic as orgasmic blasts echo around the building.

    We all enjoy a good shotgun sequence, don't we? And this was the era when you saw patterns of buckshot blossoming across chests and stuntmen getting hauled backwards at tremendous speeds from a 12-gauge impact. And Rolling Thunder loves such indulgence just as much. Rednecks are blasted into the distance with sawn-off fury, one even slamming brutally against an iron bedstead, another catapulted off a chair, and it is hard not to holler and whoop as each one meets his maker.

    The two veterans flank the doorway at the top of the stairs, Luke Askew's brilliantly named “Automatic Slim” goading the “Flyboy” to come on down. I love the way that Tommy Lee Jones allows himself a smile – his only damn one in the movie (or any movie, for that matter!) - once he's reloaded and he and the Major commit to storming their way down to the bar-room. Once again, whip-crack editing hammers each shot, the sequence linear, lean and unstoppable. Muzzle-flashes herald oblivion like neon blood-bursts. You can feel the devil-may-care enjoyment that Johnny is getting out of it. If anything, he is the one who will finally be “released” from prison by this deed of heroism. Whilst Rane is merely finishing off the job. There's no satisfaction on the Major's face, no combat euphoria or sense of victory. This last action may be justified and cathartic … but you know that it has not freed him from his own demons.

    I used to watch this sequence on VHS over and over again as a kid … and I'm elated to say that it's lost none of that explosively addictive beauty.

    With a nice country ballad from Denny Brooks entitled San Antone, the film also pre-empts the musical epitaph of James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator. Besides this, the film’s score from Barry De Vorzon (The Warriors, Night Of The Creeps) is sparse, with only that powerful and growling surge of impending dread and violence to actually add anything of character. Flynn gives the impression of holding back on the action, but he actually provides a fair bit of scrapping. Rane is forced to go up against a few ruffians and his hit-and-run tactics would no doubt elicit a nod of approval from Jackie Chan during one skirmish with a sleazy tavern full of rogues – chairs, pool-cues and hook all being utilised with dexterity. However, in a curiously dissatisfying subplot, he brings Cliff into the fray when the deputy decides to go after his buddy, resulting in a cold-hearted Western standoff that should have had a lot more impact that it actually achieves … almost as though someone has whispered in his ear … "Psst … we need some more action.”

    "Why do I always get stuck with the crazy men?”

    "'cause that's the only kind that's left.”

    Flynn's film is a sure-fire classic of its kind. The seventies had been filled with this sort of one-man-crusade, the nihilism of a “good man” being pushed into acts of depravity just to right a terrible wrong have become almost a celluloid anthem for a nation that was still licking its wounds … and still is, for that matter. Apart from Dirty Harry, Starsky & Hutch, and Kojack, America had absolutely no trust in its police or its legal system, so the frontier style of taking the law into your own hands was an emotive clarion-call that spoke to people who had suffered riots, segregation and poverty for too long under the banner of progress and “reform”. The movies acknowledged this moral no-man’s-land in accusatory yarns from Straw Dogs to Death Wish to First Blood and beyond, and Flynn was right there on the money with this often sidelined offering. I’ve read only recently that Rolling Thunder shouldn’t be classed as exploitation, or even as a “revenger” … but I’m only too happy to dispute this ridiculous viewpoint. It is happily both … and a little bit more besides. By loading a few cartridges of cultural and psychological reflection it also gains some semblance of cautionary observation, and a much deeper integrity than the average gun-blazer. Yet the fact that it doesn't play on these things – neither Devane nor Jones give an inch more than is necessary to convey inner turmoil and seem to communicate telepathically with one another – is the key to its emotional success. They've shared so much agony together, they don't need to prattle on about it and, as a result, the film shrugs off the sermonising that could have crippled it.

    Part blighted modern-day Western, part allegory to a senseless war, Rolling Thunder blew a hole through the patriotic flag and touched a raw nerve. The film may have dipped out of sight for too damn long, but now it is back with a bullet.

    There's thunder in the air.

    Roll with it.