“To me, it’s the greatest combo of action film and character study ever made,” Quentin Tarantino famously said of director John Flynn’s key work, Rolling Thunder. “If you like revenge movies, this is the best revenge movie to see.” The movie-loving director liked the film so much, in fact, that he named his short lived distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures, after it. Released in 1977, this extraordinary film is unquestionably John Flynn’s best work, but he is rarely celebrated for it. While often hailed as a genre classic, the man who made Rolling Thunder doesn’t quite come with the same cache.
Born in Chicago in 1932 but raised in California, John Flynn started out as a journalist before making the move into film when he was employed as an assistant to veteran film director, Robert Wise. Flynn subsequently worked as the script supervisor on Wise’s 1961 musical West Side Story, before climbing the ladder up to second assistant director on 1962’s Kid Galahad and Two For The Seesaw, and then first assistant director on 1963’s The Great Escape and second unit director on 1963’s Kings Of The Sun. Flynn finally broke out on his own in 1966 when he made his directorial debut (under the helpful eye of producer Robert Wise) with the daring drama The Sergeant, which starred Rod Steiger as a tough military man coming to terms with his homosexuality. Despite (or perhaps because of) its controversial subject matter, the film little impact. Neither did Flynn’s follow-up, 1972’s The Jerusalem File, a political thriller set during The Arab-Israeli Six Day War.
A far better indicator of where Flynn’s stylistic and thematic heart really lay came with his third film. 1973’s crime thriller The Outfit is an absolute belter of a film, and one of the better adaptations of the work of revered crime author Donald E. Westlake aka Richard Stark (whose novel The Hunter inspired John Boorman’s 1967 cult classic Point Blank). Boasting a brilliantly rugged and uncompromising Robert Duvall as an ex-con waging a one-man war against a powerful criminal organisation, The Outfit is tough and unsentimental, but also existentialist in tone. It’s beautifully constructed, packed with cult performers (Joe Don Baker, Karen Black, Robert Ryan, Sheree North, Timothy Carey), and moves like a freight train.
Flynn topped it with Rolling Thunder. Co-scripted by Paul Schrader (his first work after the masterpiece, Taxi Driver) and Heywood Gould (who later penned the little known but exceptional crime drama, Fort Apache The Bronx, and, um, Cocktail), Rolling Thunder is a revenge thriller of unrivalled grit, intelligence, and intensity. When US Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home after seven long years as a POW in Vietnam, he finds an America irrevocably changed. His wife has been romancing another man, his young son hardly recognises him, and he’s haunted by nightmares and riddled with physical pain. When a gang of thugs invades his home looking for the money that he’s been gifted by the government for his service in Vietnam, Charles Rane has everything ripped from him: his wife and son are killed, and he loses his hand when the crooks shove it into a garbage disposal unit when he won’t tell them where the cash is stashed. Barely alive, Charles Rane now burns with one desire: revenge. Teaming up with his equally unhinged and ready-for-action army buddy, Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), and young free spirit, Linda (Linda Haynes), the primed-to-explode Rane – now sporting a hook-for-a-hand honed into a sharp, nasty point – hits the vengeance trail. “We almost got killed when we previewed Rolling Thunder in San Jose,” John Flynn told journalist Harvey F. Chartrand. “People were shocked by the extreme violence, especially the scene where the hand is ground up in the garbage disposal unit.” The film’s themes of revenge are Old Testament in their timelessness, and the drive of its lean-and-mean plot is savagely compelling – Rolling Thunder is John Flynn’s essential work.
While he never bettered it, John Flynn continued to cut a bloody, bullet-riddled swathe through the much maligned world of action and exploitation cinema. 1980’s Defiance sat snugly in that decade’s vigilante exploitation boom, with late cult hero Jan Michael Vincent in rampaging form as a seaman who tangles with a street gang on the mean streets of New York City. It’s an elevated B-film, and features Flynn truly at home in his terse, no-nonsense element. The director veered off course with 1983’s little seen Touched (starring Robert Hays and Kathleen Beller as patients in a psychiatric institution who fall in love and plan to escape), but corrected brilliantly with 1987’s cracking Best Seller. Written by B-master Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, Q The Winged Serpent), this sneaky, snaking little thriller stars a wonderfully on-form James Woods as a fast talking hitman trying to convince cop/author Brian Dennehy to pen his life story. One of the best thrillers of the 1980s, it saw Flynn tapped to helm superior vehicles for Sylvester Stallone (1989’s solid prison drama Lock Up) and Steven Seagal (1991’s gruesomely violent Out For Justice) before a surprise detour into the world of horror with 1994’s Brainscan, which posited the world of Virtual Reality as a potential new threat.
While Flynn finished out his career with two underwhelming direct-to-home-entertainment thrillers starring Stephen Baldwin (1999’s Absence Of The Good and 2001’s Protection), the director’s last real bravura work was made for television, a field in which he dabbled over the years, with middling TV movies like 1980’s Marilyn: The Untold Story (a standard biopic starring Catherine Hicks) and 1993’s Scam (starring Christopher Walken and Lorraine Bracco). 1992’s Nails, however, was the equal of Flynn’s best big screen work. Starring Dennis Hopper as a psycho cop on the warpath, this wild, ragged, violent film is even better than it sounds. “That movie was so good for Dennis, because he is a wild man in person,” Flynn told Shock Cinema. “Dennis was perfect in that part. Nails was a Showtime original in the US, but was released theatrically in Europe, where Hopper was still a big star.”
Dividing his time in his later years between France and the US, John Flynn passed away in his sleep in 2007 at the age of 75, leaving behind a fierce resume of tough, no-bullshit movies that most better known directors could only dream of having their names on. “I just have a fairly direct style of filmmaking,” Flynn once said, perfectly describing his front-forward aesthetic, while also selling himself chronically short. When it comes to action and exploitation cinema, John Flynn is the real deal.
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