Among the most morally complex works in all of American genre cinema; "Rolling Thunder" isn’t a product of its time, it just looks like one. In fact, to the unprepared eye, its opening suggests another dime-a-dozen 70s revenge thriller: Major Charles Raine returns home from a Vietnam tour and 7 years in a POW camp, with his pride and his men in tow (most notably a young, never-better Tommy Lee Jones.) He’s given an appreciative award by the town, but it’s quickly stolen by a group of rugged, Mexican bandits - the Acuna boys - who go on to kill his wife, child, and leave him for dead; with a bullet in his body and his hand in the garbage disposal. Raine survives. He replaces his missing limb with a razor-sharp hook. The AIP logo and cheesy country music at the start of the film tell you exactly what to expect: righteous, holy vengeance. Wrong.
This film was written by subversive miserable iconoclast Paul Schrader, fresh off the heels of his "Taxi Driver." And he’s got more on his mind than Corman-esque thrills. Obstacles and complications quickly beset Raine’s quest for revenge. His wife is found to have been cheating on him; no less, it was with a police officer, and one who’s determined to bring the killers in - within the confines of the law - before Raine can ’bring them in,’ outside of it. And when Raine finally relents and goes to request Lee Jones’ help in a raid, he doesn’t find the idyllic return home he - and we - expect. Mindless chatter drives Jones mad; "being with a women" seems foreign. He’s more troubled in peace than in war (his quick response, upon learning of the true motive for Raine’s visit: "I’ll just get my gear").
And when the two track down the Acuna gang, their numbers are much larger than the small group that took Raine’s hand and his family. He quickly makes a decision, unreferenced in dialogue, that many an American military man has made before: we’ll kill the vaguely guilty many to ensure that we kill the decidedly guilty few.
It’s a deceptively bleak film; alternatively trading in grindhouse thrills and art-house contemplations; and so it’s not that surprising that it’s only been available in bootleg form for decades. But Shout! Factory, continuing to establish their reputation as ’the Criterion of the exploitation circuit,’ gives it a full commercial release; stuffed with trailers and interviews (including one with co-writer Heywood Gould). But it’s the picture that’s a revelation. What once appeared in cheap bootlegs to be muddy cinematography is revealed to be the work of a great director.
Filmmaker John Flynn shrouds every close-up in murky shadows; the Blu-ray capturing subtleties ardent viewers have never noticed before. Here, everything’s a shade of grey. This is a great film.