rating:4Think back to 1993's the Fugitive, and you'll find an actor at the top of his game in the shape of Harrison Ford: he knew how to make block-busters and was the kind of actor studios could hang a big budget on without too much concern. Tommy Lee Jones on the other hand had pretty much landed out of nowhere: prior to 1991, when he appeared in JFK, Jones was a bit part player in Hollywood with a number of TV movies and lowly movies under his belt. But he had been involved in one stand out movie earlier in his career - a vengeance flick with one foot firmly in the exploitation world. And now that film - Rolling Thunder - is available to buy on blu-ray for the first time, after all but missing the DVD market entirely. The film follows Major Charlie Raine (great action hero name), played by William Devane - a Vietnam vet who returns home to discover that life away from war isn't the same thing as life away from the human capacity for devastation, first when his wife informs him of her infidelity and plan to leave him, and then when she and his son are killed by house-invading bandits, and he is left with a badly injured hand. Fitted with a hook, and burning with vengeance, Raine recovers and steels himself to find and reap bloody revenge on those who killed his family, first with a new love in tow (who thinks they're off on a romantic mini-break) and then when she baulks at his intentions with his war veteran comrade (played by the young Tommy Lee Jones). There are grander themes bubbling below the surface than the superficial vengeance flick skin might suggest, and John Flynn is clearly making a statement about the similarities governing the human capacity for evil, and what limits war pushes men to. It is a film of the objector school - war is not an honourable endeavour, it is rather a test of how far men can be degraded - and in Raine's story we see not only a man facing his immediate problems, but also exorcising the demons left ingrained within him by his experience of war. There is almost certainly also a lamentation that Raine is the product of that experience, and there is a sense that no normal life would ever have been possible for him, and his tragedy was the inevitable manifestation of all of his nightmares. For Raine, it is life, not only war that is hell. Rolling Thunder actually has a lot in common with the last days of the Western genre, before the emergence of the Revivalist films of later years, when films like True Grit wrestled with the idea of useless cowboys, relegated to redundancy by societal advances and a New Age that casts them aside as uncouth reminders of a savage past. Raine is the same sort of hollow hero as Rooster Cogburn, unneeded and unadaptible, a tragic reminder of what violence does to a man. Rather than the Mexican vengeance sojourn that drives the final act, it is in fact that far more touching theme that is central to Rolling Thunder, and it deserves to be considered in the same sort of thread as Deer Hunter, though without quite that level of quality execution. Devane is particularly good as Raine, and his is an understated performance of some achievement, saying little but implying a lot behind his looks and expressions, and crucially able to effuse that same kind of inexplicable anti-hero cool that Travis Bickle managed. It is his performance which ensures the film's depth, and somewhat contrary to Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth's ringing endorsements that the film isn't just the hyper-violent bloodbath that early censors would have had us believe.
QualityWith any release like Rolling Thunder, you always have to take into account the original source's age, and judge the quality of the transfer against that context, and in that respect this re-release of the film is very good. Thankfully, there has been no attempt to give the film an inauthentic gloss through tinkering, and the image retains a pleasant filmic quality, and a visual texture that reminds us exactly where and when it came from. This is certainly the best the film has looked, having been taken from the best available master, and the basics are all done well, without spectacular effect. Colours and facial tones especially remain natural (something a lot of back-cat older releases can't boast after over-zealous recolouration), and both detail and textures are as good as can be expected. It's not always necessary to strip every little bit of noise and grain away, as that compromises something of the film's essential visual quality, and Rolling Thunder is the perfect example of an understated HD treatment done well without massively over-turned earth.
ExtrasWhy exactly Eli Roth makes an appearance providing an audio commentary for the original theatrical trailer defies me somewhat, but it's an additional feature on what could have been a fleshier release package. We have an audio commentary from screenwriter Heywood Gould, and an interview with Linda Haynes, but Tommy Lee Jones is conspicuous by his absences - I for one would have relished the opportunity to hear Jones talk about his early career moves, and his subsequent transition into more populist projects. Audio Commentary with co-screenwriter Heywood Gould Interview with Linda Haynes Original Theatrical Trailer with Audio Commentary from Eli Roth TV spot Trailer
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