As Eli Roth mentions in the Rolling Thunder edition of Trailers from Hell, this is a movie with a big violent scene at the beginning, and a big violent scene at the end. In between? Well, they don’t make revenge thrillers like this anymore — in America.
It’s a brutal and cynical and headscratching film, a vengeance tale without a moral, and maybe without any sort of human compass at all. This Top 100 began with First Blood, a fundamentally different approach to the same story. While John Rambo is ultimately a hero, though not in the traditional sense, Charles Rane is more like an anti-hero, and so expertly played by William Devane.
Flanking him is the even more sociopathic Tommy Lee Jones, who actually smiles in this movie, and it’s after he’s done having sex with a prostitute. He tells her he’s gotta go kill a bunch of people.
The post-Vietnam and anti-war atmosphere settles on urban carnage like morning dew — it’s just a light flavor to give Rolling Thunder a unique face. It’s even in the title; what would you call this movie if it didn’t have the Vietnam connection?
But that’s just for the outside looking in. Once you see the film, you know why it’s got such a cult reputation. There are legion reasons why revenge movies aren’t like this anymore, whether because America is scared of violence (not true, we’re just ignorant of cool violence) or maybe we’re not as cynical and self-loathing as a nation (up for debate).
I think it’s because studios want to make the complete package, and not give a film over entirely to the violence at its blackened heart. It’s a simple story: some assholes killed a vet’s family and stole his silver coins (awarded to him during homecoming), and finally, removed his hand in a garbage disposal. So he gets a hook and a sawed-off shotgun.
It proceeds as expected, for the most part, and culminates in a five or so minute kill-fest, running high with emotion: the assholes are all angry, the two ‘heroes’ are gleeful. Violence defined them as soldiers, and now it’s back home. The scene is so memorable, and almost matter-of-fact. It is without the flair of John Woo, or the cartoon absurdity of Verhoeven. But it is just as bloody and the ambience is gunfire, shattering glass, and screaming (naked) prostitutes. Very effective.
Perhaps something else could be taken from the movie, but it isn’t indicting of the soldiers’ actions. It becomes a buddy film, not an anti-war statement. And honestly, adding some kind of moral would help other movies, but I don’t need it to consider Rolling Thunder one of my favorites, and one of the best revenge movies of all time.