Luke Doolin (Robert Mitchum) makes his money by transporting illegal moonshine through the mountains, all the while chased by the police. But now, the local bootleggers have a new threat in the shape of Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), a businessman who is buying up the stills. If they refuse to hand over their profits to Kogan, he will take them by force, and starts by shooting one of the drivers. With the police, taxmen and the gangsters on his trail, will Luke survive?
Thunder Road was a pet project for Mitchum, as he produced it, wrote the story (James Atlee Philips and Walter Wise wrote the script), starred in it, cast his son in it, and even co-wrote the songs on the soundtrack. It was the first movie to combine car chases and backwoods racketeering that started a trend continuing into the seventies, with Moonshine County Express at the drive-in and The Dukes of Hazzard on TV. It's really Mitchum's film all the way, mostly because he plays the most interesting character, and also because his charisma outshines everyone else in the movie.
Luke is his own man, and stays composed and laid back throughout. When he gets slapped in the face by a woman, he doesn't bat an eyelid; when he finds a little liquor left in the tank after it has supposed to have been drained completely, he shows his displeasure by shoving a cigarettte in his contact's mouth and lighting it. Luke chain smokes like it's going out of fashion, always with the cigarette hanging from his lips with an air of nonchalance. When his girlfriend's nightclub act is interrupted by a customer's raucous laughter, Luke walks over to him and chokes him with his own tie to get him to shut up. Mitchum clearly relishes these moments.
We're treated to high speed car chases to liven up the action, and Luke drives a car that releases oil onto the road to hinder anyone pursuing him. Kogan's men have a tendency to shoot at him, but Luke always outruns them - when they set up a roadblock of two cars, he just smashes straight through. In the final chase, Luke distracts his assailant by flicking his lit cigarette at him though his side window!
However, Kogan gets at Luke by trying to hire Luke's little brother into the racket, much against his wishes. The Doolin family business is trying to resist this takeover bid, and Luke, a changed man since his wartime experiences, doesn't want his brother ending up the same way he has. He may be his own man, as he tells everyone he speaks to, but his independence is his downfall - if he'd only accepted the offer of government agent Barrett (Gene Barry), he could have got rid of the unwanted competition at no personal cost. Finally, although the film too often gets bogged down in talk, Mitchum steals the show and makes it worth watching.