Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and his military buddies received a hero's welcome when he returned to his Texas home in 1973 after spending many months as a prisoner of war in a Vietnam camp. The experience had understandably changed him, and by the time he had gone back to his wife and son, a child who when he last saw him had been a baby, he wasn't quite sure he could readjust. Making things worse was the fact that his son felt estranged from his father, and his wife had spent the time when he was away with another man...
Things could only get better, right? Well, not really, and the message seemed to be here that the only way Rane could settle was if he had all the excuse he needed to continue with his previous existence of martyrdom and violence. What was most interesting about this from a film buff's point of view was that it featured a Vietnam War veteran turning to blowing people away with his guns to regain his self esteem the year after another vet did the same, to far higher critical and audience interest. And the link? Both Rolling Thunder and Taxi Driver were scripted by Paul Schrader, and while both went on to become cult movies, you're more likely to have heard of the latter.
They both involve a ex-military man suffering when he tries to fit back in with society, and they both end with a massive gun battle, but Rane is more of a family man gone bad than a dangerous loner. Not that he has much choice in the matter as while he is still treated as a hero, that proves his undoing when a gift of two thousand odd silver coins - one for every day he was incarcerated - is too much of a temptation for a gang of hoods to resist. They show up at Rane's house and demand he hands over the money, but he reverts back to his prisoner mindset and refuses to give them anything but his name.
In return, they shove his hand down the waste disposal and turn it on, then when his wife and son come back they shoot them dead, thus showing that Rane's bullheadedness is little to be admired when he could have saved the lives of his loved ones. But there's a creepy scene early on that illustrates how his war turmoil has messed him up to a well nigh sadomasochistic degree as he invites his wife's lover to tie up his arms and recreate the torture that he endured, not something the lover is keen to do. He, and now we, are aware that Rane's mental scars have gone far deeper than anyone would have allowed and the ominous mood that pervades the story is paid off.
Trouble is, while some will have you believe this was one of the finest revenge movies of the seventies, it takes itself so humourlessly seriously that even when such borderline absurd images as Rane sharpening the hook he now wears in place of his missing hand appear, the dour way it is all conveyed, often in a gloom that makes certain scenes hard to make out, result in a movie that's far less exciting that you might expect. In fact, the whole thing takes what could have been a riproaring exploitation flick and offers a more measured, deliberately-paced and downright stern piece of filmmaking that might appeal if you want your bleak worldview confirmed, but otherwise is hard to put up with. Linda Haynes as Linda, the barmaid who joins up with Rane to track the men who ruined his life, contributes a spark of life and a voice of reason, but even she cannot save such a po-faced example of the vengeance movie as Rane finds company with fellow vet Tommy Lee Jones (who gets a great line near the end). You might respond to its merciless nature, but it's a bit of a chore overall. Music by Barry De Vorzon.