Touted as one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, the revenge thriller “Rolling Thunder” (1977) was also one of the better offerings from low-budget specialists American InternationalPictures in the last decade of their existence before the company was absorbed by Filmways in 1980.
William Devane (“Marathon Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) is convincingly steely as Maj. Charles Rane, who returns home to San Antonio, Texas, with his friend, Sgt. 1st Class John Vohden (a very young Tommy Lee Jones), after both men have endured eight years of physical and mental torture in a Hanoi POW camp.
Rane finds his wife has fallen in love with another man — a local cop — and become engaged to him, and Rane’s young son doesn’t even remember him. Rane stoically accepts the situation, wanting only happiness for his family, but he’s determined to build a relationship with his son. Meanwhile, the city throws him a hero’s homecoming, and he is presented with a red Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars — one for every day of his captivity — by local “Texas belle” Linda (Linda Haynes). Linda later hits on him in the bar where she works, but he acts politely uninterested.
When he returns home, four border thugs are waiting for him: “The Texan” (the excellently loathsome James Best), “Automatic Slim” (Luke Askew) and two Mexican toughs. They demand the silver dollars and torture Rane to find them. Rane goes into his hard-learned torture resistance mode as they beat him and even shove his right hand down a garbage disposal, but they still fail to break his resistance. Then Rane’s wife and son come home, and his son quickly hands over the hidden silver dollars. The gang then shoots all three of them in cold blood, leaving them for dead. Rane survives but his wife and son do not.
Next, after healing and having a hook installed in place of his right mitt, an instrument which Rane sharpens into a fine, deadly point, our hero saws off a shotgun, loads a few handguns and enlists the help of Linda and Sgt. Vohden (who has been unable to re-adapt to his own family situation and civilian life in general) to go a-hunting for the bad guys, who are headquartered in a brothel below the border.
The hunt and the showdown are predictably blood – sometimes excessively so – but the story is well-acted, well-written and well choreographed thanks to a script written by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) and Heywood Gould (“Fort Apache, The Bronx”), and directed by John Flynn, who helmed “The Outfit,” one of the best film interpretations of Donald E. Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker crime novel series ever made. AIP may have kept production budgets tight, but the seldom scrimped on writing talent, having employed such talents as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell even during their drive-in double-feature period.
- Gene Triplett