Famed screenwriter Paul Schrader is best known for penning Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but his contribution to the vigilante genre deserves special attention.
Rolling Thunder, now available via a new Blu-ray release, expertly showcases a warrior’s return home that is anything but peaceful.
William Devane plays the stoic Maj. Charley Rane, who returns to his San Antonio haunts after spending years being tortured by the Viet Cong. His beautiful wife and son are waiting for him, as expected, but all is not rosy on the home front. His wife has fallen in love with a local man, and Charley’s son barely remembers him.
Director John Flynn (the underrated Best Seller) stages Charley’s return with an eye toward understatement. Fellow returnee Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) looks shell-shocked as his feet first touch American soil, his eyes all but blank. Charley handles the transition better, although his calm doesn’t allow strangers to understand the flashbacks that command his waking hours.
When a gang of opportunists break into Charley’s home to steal a trunk of silver coins given to him by his neighbors as a thank you for his service, Charley’s stoicism snaps.
Now, it’s payback time.
Rolling Thunder goes about its vigilante business without a sense of audience-approved thrills. Charley may be armed, but he’s vulnerable with or without his newly acquired hook.
The film doesn’t comment directly on the Vietnam War, although it slyly addresses the nasty reception American soldiers received in some quarters. Even in a city like San Antonio some people sought to find a way to make a soldier’s return about them. The film similarly treats the horrors faced by some soldiers with respect, not opportunism.
Devane is outstanding here, commanding the screen even when he’s asked not to say a word or move a muscle. The film’s vigilante portion proves more powerful than most thanks to the small emotional truths told in the first half.
Less successful is the sudden romance between the emotionally blank Major and a local beauty (Linda Haynes), a subplot explained away by her passion for bad boys.
Too many vigilante films are in a hurry to get to the good stuff–revenge served any way the hero wants. Rolling Thunder actually peaks before the guns start blazing.