by Jack Sommersby
There may have been some potential here, but the development and execution are direly lacking. Commendable acting, though.William Devane's galvanizing performance as a revenge-seeking Vietnam veteran hunting the vicious killers of his family is the best reason to get involved in Rolling Thunder, a South Texas/south-of-the-border tale that's far more successful as a character study than as an action movie. In fact, the first thirty minutes are so good, so observant, so true that it's considerably disappointing when the story eventually introduces violence and then smothers the majority of the remainder of the proceedings with it in the form of heaping helpings of shootouts, fistfights, and, yes, a lot of blood -- not to mention puerile plotting, logic loopholes, with a pungent touch of jingoism to further foul the phony-baloney broth. The screenplay, by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, isn't without merit, but it's not particularly interested in what it purports to be about: that of psychologically impaired servicemen who've had their souls burned out by war and can only really feel "alive" again when fighting. The year is 1973, and Major Charles "Charlie" Rane (played by Devane) has just returned to San Antonio after having spent seven years as a POW in Hanoi (the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," we presume); he, along with three others under his former command, arrive via private jet where they're met with a cheering parade, full of ultra-patriotic citizens who've never forgotten their hometown boys who got left behind. Also greeting Charlie is his wife and nine-year-old son, the latter not remembering anything of his father, and the former having tried staying faithful all this time but has taken up a relationship with a local policeman, Cliff (an excellent Lawrason Driscoll). When informed of this, on his first night in the family house, Charlie is not outraged or bitter: he's accepting of it as if it were inevitable, which, for the most part, it was. Where most movies would have the husband immediately change residences, this one has him move into the storage shed in the backyard; and rather than Cliff portrayed as a machismo-fueled jerk, the one here is kind-hearted and considerate -- he truly loves the wife, and he also has but the highest respect for Charles in light of his military service and deep-seated bravery. In a particularly revealing scene, when the two are having a beer in the shack, Charlie gets to his knees and requests Cliff tie his hands behind his back with rope, and then pull up tight on it, for this was a twice-daily torture routine inflicted upon him; it's the only time Charlie gets jazzed, juiced-up on the adrenaline, but Cliff, repelled by the action, suddenly aborts his participation. When he asks Charlie how he was able to endure this for so many years, he's told, quite simply, "You had to learn to love the rope."
"More Lightning Than 'Thunder'"
Devane has been an always-welcome screen presence, with the majority of his career spent in supporting roles. He was quietly menacing and mesmerizing as the duplicitous government agent in Marathon Man and interesting as the progressive, naive attorney in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But when been called upon to be a leading man, he's been noteworthy in that area, as well: he exuded charisma and displayed variety as the WWII officer in Yanks, and even in the made-for-TV nuclear-plant thriller Red Alert he made for quite the stalwart hero. Devane isn't the insanely talented type who can do dramatic classics, and he hasn't much in the way of electricity or sex appeal, but he can be vividly stolid with the very best of them, and is that rare actor who's simply incapable of ever being boring. In one respect, Charlie isn't the most challenging part for an actor, for even though the character is three-dimensional he isn't particularly splashy; on the other hand, it takes imagination and variety to expressively convey inexpressiveness in an unremarkable Everyman, and thanks to Devane's prowess, we're constantly drawn to him. Another reason for Charlie's acceptance of his marital predicament is that he no longer feels passion for anyone or anything; he's been tragically depleted of emotion, which was essential for his keeping it together while a prisoner of war but detrimental for his long-term well-being. Right before getting off the plane, one of his men, John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), says he doesn't know how he's going to face the awaiting crowd, and the sunglasses-wearing Charlie tells him to put on his sunglasses, too; for the majority of the movie, Charlie, even in a dimly-lit living room or bar, keeps them on, and when he's without them, as soon as a conversation threatens to call to mind things he's still trying to shut out, he, without hesitation, puts them back on -- the ultimate defense mechanism. Charlie is showered with gifts after his return at a ceremony with a brand-new red convertible and twenty-five hundred dollars in silver dollars (one for every day spent in capture); and though he's grateful, he doesn't take much pleasure in them -- Devane conveys, without ever stressing in italics, that Charlie not only doesn't want special attention, but also that he doesn't deserve it. By refusing to cede to his captors by denouncing his country, Charlie was engaged in an internal battle, not any less strident a one than armed combat. He relates to someone later, "They pulled out whatever it was inside of me. And it never hurt at all after that, and it never will"; and Devane, never going for bathetic bathos, makes these words hurt.
Unfortunately, at the thirty-minute mark, this uncommonly perceptive, realistic movie, which has etched an affecting sense of dailiness and presented an array of well-rounded characters, eventually introduces violence into the equation for sake of "plot," and it couldn't be more trite. After coming back to the house alone after his son's baseball game, four men are waiting inside: they demand at gunpoint the location of the silver dollars (a paltry amount for a high-risk home-invasion robbery, even for 1973, especially when split four ways); Charlie, having faced far worse a threat, refuses. They proceed to force his right hand into a garbage disposal and switch it on, but even though enduring unimaginable pain he still won't talk; his wife and son walk in on things, and though the son gives up the money's location, all three are then shot, with only Charlie surviving. Weeks later in the hospital, healed from his wounds and learning dexterity with his new steel hook of a hand, Charlie still maintains, to Cliff's chagrin, he can't identify any of the assailants. He can, of course, but, obviously, otherwise there wouldn't be a movie for there's still an hour left in the running time, he wants to deal out his own brand of (Movieland) justice. For some reason, which must have ended up on the cutting-room floor, Charlie is convinced the murderers have headed to Mexico, and before blowing town he invites Linda (the resplendent Linda Haynes), a spunky attractive young woman who previously flirted with him (he kindly rebuffed her advances) and visited him in the hospital (she confessed her "groupie"-like devotion to him) to accompany him on his trip under the guise of it being a much-needed vacation. And from here the story structure becomes a mess, along with the common-sense quotient. Once over the border, Charlie has Linda go into seedy bars asking for the name of one of the assailants he overheard at his house that fateful day; and Charlie then comes in and assaults various people to cough up the location of the man, but he's woefully unprepared -- oddly, even though his car trunk is full of enough guns to start a Third World revolution, he comes in unarmed and misses his chance to do in the man when he appears. Also incredulous is Charlie's geographically-muddled game plan: he keeps going back and forth across the border for no discernible reason, eventually leaving Linda at a motel and then stopping in El Paso to enlist John to come with him to do in the men he's tracked to a Mexican whorehouse. Why couldn't he have left Linda behind in San Antonio in the first place, driven to El Paso and picked up John, and had the two of them go to Mexico and stay there until they found and killed the men responsible? To pad out the running time, of course.
Why have Linda reveal herself to be an Army brat growing up (which helps explain her attraction to Charlie) and a crack-shot with a variety of guns (which impresses Charlie during a target practice in the countryside) and not use her during the grand finale? (Then again, women aren't subject to the most flattering of treatment throughout: Charlie justifies his vigilantism with "they killed my son"; and before John leaves his household, knowing that he may not be coming back, he says goodbye to his daddy but not his wife in the same room.) And why drag in the subplot of Cliff tracking down Charlie, which stubs the narrative's foot every time, since his eventual death plays absolutely no role in the subsequent plot? Add to this some distasteful racism, for all the Mexican characters are sexually lewd, conscienceless cretins (Rolling Thunder will not do a whole lot for promoting Mexico tourism), along with nasty nihilism, for every man during the final shootout in the whorehouse is hideously slain (out of step for the owner and his pals to draw down on a couple of whites shooting things up in their establishment?). But the movie's biggest weakness is the one that was built right into the conception: an emotionally-aloof lead character thrust into a run-of-the-mill, well-worn revenge tale. The writers have tried having it both ways in establishing a complex lead character and shoveling forth a series of action sequences, and the quality of the former is emasculated by the tediousness of the latter -- it were as if Charlie were dumped into a gigantic chasm and left to fend for himself. Maybe if the last two-thirds were as excitingly rendered as the first third is tactfully textured, the disproportion wouldn't be so blatantly apparent, but the director, John Flynn, has neither a flair for action nor an eye for style. His work is competent, at best, which simply isn't good enough for the assignment at hand; the later scenes need propulsion, some high-velocity energy to make up for the low contextual value, and all Flynn can do is get in and out of a scene without disgracing himself. Co-writer Schrader was also responsible for the shaky Taxi Driver, which also culminated in a no-holds barred shootout, but at least the director was Martin Scorsese, whose lurid camerawork, however self-conscious, elevated it to something of a nightmarish level that worked us over. Here, with the mediocre framing and substandard juxtaposing (not to mention villains who couldn't hit the broadest side of a barn with a shotgun with a double-aught load), we're all the more drawn to the artistic cop-out the moviemakers have perpetrated onto us. We, not to mention Devane, deserved much better.The DVD, which marks the first time the movie has been available letterboxed on home video, is considerably better than the murky VHS transfer. if you're looking for special features, however, look elsewhere.
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originally posted: 04/10/12 10:07:03