Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Dir. John Flynn

I'd never be one to advocate for the remake of a movie that holds up perfectly fine some 30 years later, but if timeliness were ever to be taken into consideration for such things, one might look to 1977's Rolling Thunder as a prime candidate for a relevant reinterpretation. In the film, two soldiers return home to Texas after years of being POWs in Hanoi. When one loses his wife and child, and one of his hands, to a group of thugs, he enlists some friends' help in tracking them down and exacting bloody revenge. Sounds like the stuff of a typical 70s-80s b-movie and maybe a vehicle for a Norris, Stallone or Bronson under the watchful eye of a Golan or a Globus. There were some highly entertaining movies made under those conditions, don't get me wrong, but Rolling Thunder comes to us with a different pedigree -- it's a Lawrence Gordon production (yep, the same Gordon behind the Watchmen rights fiasco) of a John Flynn film written by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, and starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. I couldn't tell you much about Flynn, but even though it was released a year after Taxi Driver, and there are many differences, it feels like Paul Schrader, with the help of Gould, was taking an initial run through at that film here -- it's definietly a variation on a story and theme and one that feels perfectly suited to today's society where PTSD is far too commonplace. "We tell a soldier or veteran of war "welcome home" because the battle never leaves us..."

Rather than following our vet through a clausterphobic New York City, we're following Major Charles Rane (William Devane) around San Antonio as he tries to adjust to civilian life. We know things aren't going to be easy from the very first scene: As they are getting off the airplane, fellow POW Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) mentions that the aviator sunglasses will make it easier to look people in the face. While Devane is being celebrated around town and given a new cherry red Cadillac convertible and a box of over 2,500 silver dollars (one for every day he was imprisoned), he's discovering that his wife has begun a new relationship with a local police officer, one that she isn't too eager to put an end to now that he's back home. There's an interesting serenity to Devane's performance, especially in the first act s he absorbs all this. It would be easy to play the part with a clenched jaw and a certain desperation, but Devane plays the scenes with a Zen-like calm that makes them even more tense, especially when the violence erupts.

Devane's homecoming gifts catch the attention of some local thugs who suddenly show up at his house looking for those silver dollars. It's a particularlly tough scene to take in as we just got through watching Devane explain that the way to beat your torturer is to "learn to love the rope", and you can tell that once the punches start flying, Devane is back in his element and maybe even happy to be having these senses reawoken. That is, of course, until he loses his hand after this captor proves to be less patient with him than his previous ones. Worse than loosing his hand for refusal to give the location of the silver dollars is having his wife and child walk in on this and seeing them quickly taken away in a cold-blooded fashion.

These thugs, of course, unwisely leave him for dead on the kitchen floor and we're soon in revenge movie gear with Devane learning how to use his new hook-hand while laid-up in the hospital (sign of 1977: this involves him picking up loose Marlboros and putting them back in the pack). His visitors are Cliff, the cop his wife began seeing who is more than a little disapointed Devane can't (or won't) tell him anything about who these killers were; Jones who basically tells him to look him up when he's ready to go after these bastards; and Linda, his frequently bra-less "groupie" who wore a bracelett in his honor while we was away and was the one to present him with his car and money. Linda is very much in the manic-pixie-dream-girl mold, albeit a dark, 70s alcoholic version, but Schrader and Gould give her a proper backstory, explaining why she would be throwing herself at Devane, even if her character does get somewhat discarded in the end. But even before we find out her character's history, Linda is given a warm charm by Linda Haynes who unfortunately called it quits after only ten years as an actress. She's wonderful in the movie, practically the only beam of feminine sunshine in an otherwise permanently overcast, testosterone driven film. Her work here makes me want to revisit The Drowning Pool, Brubaker and Coffy again to see if she was always this good.

After Devane gets out of the hospital we're quickly stocking up on guns, sharpening our hook hand and hitting the road to Mexico with Linda. Things don't go so smooth once she realizes that she's more or less being used by Devane to help him greese informant's wheels with her looks rather than to help him sip margarita's on a beach. They have some good make-up sex and bond while taking target practice -- this is where we learn that Linda was a military brat and daddy's little girl. Linda practically steals the movie from the "macho son of a bitch" Devane during these scenes, giving us a dose of heart and soul before the Peckinpah-esque bloodletting that soon follows. It's great stuff. Actually, there's more than a little bit of Alfredo Garcia flavor in their two day trip bouncing through Mexican border towns in a Cadillac.

Once Devane finds the men he's after, holed up in a whore house in Juarez, he puts his uniform back on and picks up Jones who is far too eager to dive into his closet, suit up and arm himself to the teeth. At the brothel, Jone's interrupts a practitioner mid service when he pulls out his shotgun, "What the hell are you doing?" she asks. "I'm going to kill a bunch a people," he dryly says and enthusistically proceeds to do. Jones may look 30 years younger in the film, but his voice is beautifully the same.

The ass-kicker of an ending might make you forget the thoughtfulness that preceeded it and the fact that it's more about finding purpose in life than it is about finding revenge. When Jones pays Devane a visit in the hospital he confesses that he signed up for another 10 years with the Air Force and somehow it isn't all that confusing as to why. Devane's explination about "learning to love the rope" is just as much about learning to love the routine and embracing the discipline involved in enduring daily tourture. If there's one thing that the Hanoi Hilton and the military offer it's a tight routine schedule. Upon returning, Devane jumps into a punishing workout schedule, sleeping on a cot in the tool shed and sitting in the corner in the dark because of the comforts it provides because without it he's simply drifting along, rudderless. Finding his family's killers becomes a mission not unlike Operation Rolling Thunder, the name of the Air Force bombing campaign that landed them in captivity. It gives them a reason for being because family dinners and having people doting on you isn't a way of life.

Crafting genre films as a way to sugar coat your message isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing pleasant about Rolling Thunder, it doesn't pull any punches or bury the lead but it's far more watchable than any number of films that have come out recently about returning home from war. And for all it's revenge movie trappings, it feels far more realistic than most -- but that's largely due to William Devane's understated performance. I'd suggest that if you want to draw attention to an important and relatively unspoken of issue like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you might want to make a movie that people might want to see. I'm not saying you should dumb your movie down or even give your story a happy ending, but give them a cinematic story not a heavy-handed one.

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