Rolling Thunder (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jun 05, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
  • Bookmark and Share
Rolling Thunder (4K UHD Review)


John Flynn

Release Date(s)

1977 (April 23, 2024)


Lawrence Gordon Productions/TBC Film/AIP (Shout Select/Shout! Studios)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: A-

Rolling Thunder (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


On the surface, John Flynn’s incendiary 1977 revenge drama Rolling Thunder may seem like one of many such films that followed in the wake of the success of Death Wish three years earlier, but its actual DNA is a bit more complicated than that. That’s not to say that Rolling Thunder doesn’t bear the influence of Michael Winner’s controversial contribution to the genre, but rather that the path between the two points was anything but a straight line. The original script for Rolling Thunder was actually written the year prior to the release of Death Wish, and it would have resulted in a film that was quite different than what finally reached the screen in 1977. That’s because the author was none other than Paul Schrader, and his story explored all of his usual obsessions, with a wrong-headed antihero in the mold of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Jake Van Dorn in Hardcore. (In fact, Schrader’s script for Rolling Thunder appears to take place in the same universe as Taxi Driver.)

The protagonist that Schrader envisioned was a virulent racist who became a hero during the Vietnam war despite the fact that he had never actually fired a gun. His violent quest for revenge was a way of working out his rage against the Other while also providing the cathartic release that he never actually received during the war. His journey wasn’t just to enact revenge, but also to provide a form of wish-fulfillment for a person who had been a hero in name only. Had Flynn shot Schrader’s script as written, Rolling Thunder would have been more clearly derivative of Taxi Driver rather than it was of Death Wish—especially since Scorsese’s film was released just a year earlier in 1976. However, the development process for Rolling Thunder wasn’t quite so simple. Author Heywood Gould ended up rewriting Schrader’s script—a rare moment of cinematic karma, with a novelist reimagining an original screenplay rather than the typical situation of a screenwriter reimagining an original novel. (What goes around comes around, eventually.) Yet even Gould’s script evolved throughout the production, with Flynn and lead actor William Devane having their own influence in shaping its final form.

The result is the story of Major Charles Rane (William Devane), a Vietnam vet who returns home to Texas after having spent years being abused and tortured as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. He’s welcomed with open arms, at least by the people of San Antonio, although there have been some inevitable changes at home. Rane’s family life is further upset when a group of petty crooks led by a mysterious Texan (James Best) break into his home to try to reap the rewards of his newfound financial success. Rane is permanently disfigured in the process, and after he recovers, he decides to track down the people responsible for the tragic home invasion. He doesn’t quite go it alone, however, initially accepting help from a local woman who has eyes for him (Linda Haynes), although like Season Hubley’s character in Shrader’s Hardcore, she’s discarded as soon as she outlives her usefulness to the story. (Gould may have rewritten Schrader, but there’s still plenty of Schrader in Rolling Thunder.) For Rane’s final mission against those who have wronged him, he enlists the help of fellow vet Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones). They’re both trained soldiers who no longer have a war, so together they end up finding a war of their own. Rolling Thunder also stars Dabney Coleman, Lisa Blake Richards, Jordan Gerler, Luke Askew, and Lawrason Driscoll.

Of course, the real star of Rolling Thunder is the underappreciated name above the title: John Flynn. Flynn was a master craftsman who has never quite gotten the full due that he deserves. Flynn had apprenticed under Robert Wise and John Sturges, and the biggest lesson that he learned from both of them was simplicity. Flynn brought economy and focus to everything that he did, whether sorting out the tangled world of neo-noir with The Outfit and Best Seller, or successfully marshaling egotistical action stars like Steven Seagal and Sylvester Stallone with Out for Justice and Lockup. Flynn’s version of Rolling Thunder may not have quite the same thematic complexity that Paul Schrader had originally envisioned, but like Charles Rane, it’s far more focused on the task at hand. Flynn was ruthlessly efficient as a filmmaker, so the character of Rane probably appealed to him. That’s not because of Rane’s lust for revenge, but rather due to the Major’s uncanny ability to ignore all distractions while stoically staying focused on reaching his final destination. That’s as true of Rolling Thunder as a whole as it is of Rane himself, and it’s one reason why the film has developed such a devoted cult following (one that includes the likes of Quentin Tarantino, although he clearly hasn’t learned any lessons from Flynn regarding efficiency). It’s a tough, nasty little thriller from a filmmaker who knew exactly how to tell this kind of story without getting sidetracked.

Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth shot Rolling Thunder on 35mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Shout! Factory describes this version as a “new 4K transfer from the 35mm original camera negative,” graded in High Dynamic Range for both Dolby Vision and HDR10. The optically printed opening title sequence is transferred from dupe elements, and looks as soft as you would expect, but the rest of the film is reasonably sharp and detailed, at least within the confines of what the original cameras, lenses, and stocks would allow. The grain is consistently tight and smooth throughout, and while it may have had some light grain reduction applied, detail hasn’t been affected, and everything looks natural and filmic. That extends to the HDR grade, but it’s worth noting that Cronenweth lit the interiors with very limited practical light sources like sunlight through the windows or table lamps, and he didn’t use much in the way of reflectors, either so the lighting falls off quickly outside of those sources, and the blacks are simply pure black. There’s little to no shadow detail visible in many of the interiors, but that’s how they should look. (Some previous home video versions have boosted the levels to try to draw out more detail, but that was at the expense of Cronenweth’s intentions.) The limited lighting also means that the focus tends to be pretty shallow, so anything outside the plane of that focus looks soft. The colors are well-saturated but not too vivid, with the rich reds of Rane’s 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado Convertible showing the right degree of delineation between the gloss paint of the exterior and the leather seating inside. There’s nothing to complain about with this rendition of Rolling Thunder.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The overall frequency response is a bit limited, with not much in the way of deep bass, but Barry De Vorzon’s score sounds good. The dialogue is sometimes a little thin and muffled, but it’s still comprehensible.

Shout! Factory’s 4K Ultra HD release of Rolling Thunder is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with at 1080p copy of the film. It’s #159 in their Shout Select line. Aside from the commentary tracks, most of the extras are on the Blu-ray only:


  • Audio Commentary with Heywood Gould and C. Courtney Joyner
  • Audio Commentary with Jackson Stewart and Francis Galluppi


  • Audio Commentary with Heywood Gould and C. Courtney Joyner
  • Audio Commentary with Jackson Stewart and Francis Galluppi
  • Lean and Mean: The Early Films of John Flynn (HD – 20:12)
  • Coming Home to War: Scoring Rolling Thunder (HD – 18:51)
  • The Making of Rolling Thunder (HD – 21:51)
  • Trailers from Hell – Rolling Thunder (HD – 2:31)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:22)
  • TV Spot (Upscaled SD – :32)
  • Radio Spots (HD – 3:11, 4 in all)
  • Photo Gallery (HD – 2:07, 25 in all)

Both of the commentary tracks are new to this release. The first one pairs novelist and screenwriter Heywood Gould with author and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, both of whom try to untangle the thorny history of the script and its tortuous journey to the screen. Gould offers his memories of the experience, while Joyner provides some of the context that surrounded the production. They discuss the story and the changes that it underwent, the cast, and many other details about the making of the film. They both agree that Flynn had a great sense of clarity regarding screenplay construction, and that he was an actor’s director.

The second commentary pairs writer/directors Jackson Stewart and Francis Galluppi, who share more behind-the-scenes stories and factoids that they discovered through their research about the film. They’re both ardent fans of John Flynn and Rolling Thunder, and that comes across from beginning to end. They talk about Quentin Tarantino’s love of the film and his plan to incorporate characters from it into his next film The Movie Critic (although they obviously recorded this track before Tarantino decided to shelve the project). Stewart and Galluppi’s fan perspective makes a good complement to Gould and Joyner’s insider perspective, so both tracks are well worth the time.

The next two extras are new interviews that were produced by Daniel Griffith’s Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. Joyner returns for Lean and Mean: The Early Films of John Flynn, discussing Flynn’s background (among other things, he served as an assistant to John Sturges on films like The Great Escape) and then covering his first few films as director, with a natural emphasis on Rolling Thunder. Flynn referred to himself as a straight-ahead director, and Joyner says that he treated everything honestly and without flourishes. Coming Home: Scoring Rolling Thunder is with Barry De Vorzon, who says that Flynn and producer Larry Franco trusted his instincts and let him do what he though was right for the film. De Vorzon decided to be as sparse as possible with his score, with his opening song San Antone as an ironic counterpoint to everything that follows. (He also explains why he brought that full circle at the end.)

The Making of Rolling Thunder was produced by Cliff McMillan for Shout! Factory’s 2013 Blu-ray release of Rolling Thunder. It includes interviews with William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Heywood Gould, Paul Schrader, and stunt coordinator Billy Barton. They each give their own perspectives on the complicated production history of Rolling Thunder, with Schrader naturally taking a bit of a contrary perspective to the rest, although Tommy Lee Jones does defend Schrader’s draft of the script. Everyone offers appropriate levels of praise for Flynn (even if Devane incorrectly refers to Rolling Thunder as Flynn’s first film).

The rest of the extras consist of the Theatrical Trailer, a TV Spot, Radio Spots, and a Trailers from Hell featuring Eli Roth. There are a few extras from previous releases that aren’t offered here, including a different commentary with Heywood Gould (paired with Roy Frumkes) that was offered on the 2012 Region B Blu-ray releases from both Koch Media in Germany and StudioCanal in the U.K. That track was ported over to the 2023 Region B Blu-ray from Plaion Pictures in Germany, which also added another commentary with Leonhard Elias Lemke and Benedikt Wilken. The Koch Media and StudioCanal discs also included an interview with Linda Haynes. That’s about it, though, and taken as a whole, Shout! Factory’s UHD offers the most comprehensive collection of extras, to say nothing of the great quality of their 4K presentation of the film. It’s well worth a double-dip for anyone who has one or more of the previous versions, and for those who don’t, this is the best way to experience Rolling Thunder for the first time. Just be forewarned that it still packs an efficient punch, even a half century down the road.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)