Film Torments: Thunder Run (1986)
FILM Torments returns from belated hiatus for a film of two halves: 1986’s Thunder Run.
WHEN Mad Max: Fury Road became the greatest film of 2015 (and perhaps recorded history), 0.00001% of the international population may have noticed some similarities between George Miller’s apocalyptic piledriver and a long-forgotten schlock masterpiece. Distributed by the ever-reliable Cannon Films at the height of glorious 80s cheese, Thunder Run is a work of art in miniature. It’s a rippling salvo of high-octane carnage distilled into 45 minutes of primal joy; its only flaw is the preceding 45 minutes of plodding exposition, stodgy establishing shots and an endless array of one-note characters.
The film opens in the dead of night with an unknown couple smuggling plutonium. They are massacred, Bonnie & Clyde-style, in succinct fashion by a gang of camo-wearing military men, and the plutonium is stolen. Three cars explode. The title, appropriately, thunderclaps on-screen. In a perfect world, this would have set the tone and the pace for the entire film, but what actually entails is far more stilted, more befitting of a Hallmark Original than a pedal-to-the-floor action epic. Characters prattle inanely among themselves, compete to be the most obnoxious stereotype and almost murder an innocent man with a bulldozer.
The latter half of Thunder Run is a thrilling race to a government facility in a gadget-laden super-truck that’s smuggling plutonium. It features flamethrowers, vehicular homicide and VW buggies that shoot heat-seeking rockets. The first half, bizarrely, focuses on establishing this world’s setting, attempting to invest us in the complex familial relationships and unspoken dreams of its characters. Though it’s peppered with a drag race, a bar fight and hysterically bad 80s sax ballads, it’s thuddingly dull to watch, particularly when we all know what it’s building to.
There’s no highway to the danger zone to be found here; instead, we get a bulldozer totalling a convertible, a rendition of ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’, and what looks like a distant cousin of Sheriff Pepper howdy-tootin’ his way to spitballs. I don’t know what that sentence means, but perhaps this initial, glacial pace can be attributed to the advanced age of our protagonist, Charlie Morrison (Tucker), a happily retired trucker/Korean War vet. Tucker had previously featured in numerous Westerns during the cowboy boom of the 50s, and represented an older, classier style of action hero that Cannon, in their wisdom, were trying to corner the market around. (See: Charles Bronson in the Death Wish sequels, without the class.)
Tucker gives a surprisingly dignified performance, which is especially impressive when we consider his inauspicious surroundings. The cheesy over/under-acting, the 80s-tastic soundtrack and the threadbare, Road Warrior plot clash so hard with Tucker’s understated elan that the effect is somewhat disorienting, especially when the film eventually kicks into high gear. This is, ostensibly, a young person’s film – Morrison and his wife, Maggie (a thankless role for Marilyn O’Connor), are noticeably older than every other member of the cast, the vast majority of whom are 20-something and, in some cases, not actors.
Whether the first half caters to teenage sensibilities or not (it doesn’t), the generation gap goes largely unmentioned. When Morrison finally gets behind the wheel of his 125-mph super-truck – named, of course, Thunder – he is accompanied by his grandson, Chris (John Shepherd), and the generation gap contributes almost nothing to the narrative. Morrison may as well have been Sylvester Stallone; his age, as interesting as it is, is rendered irrelevant because it is never subsequently mentioned. It’s so strange, but weirdly compelling.
But nothing really matters once the missile-launching buggies erupt from the dunes, and shotgun-wielding motorcyclists are engulfed in flames, and barrels of Molotov cocktails tumble onto the tarmac. Then, the terrorist leader (Alan Rachins) commandeers a super-truck of his own in the finale, only to get his head smashed against a fucking windscreen. It’s pointless to describe with language how metal the second half of Thunder Run becomes, and we haven’t even come to the Laser-quest tunnel of doom at the climax. How can Thunder withstand all this punishment? Morrison tells us: “Space-age plastic, son!” Senator Armstrong be damned.
It’s these sequences where the film shines, obviously – the laser tunnel needs to be seen to be believed, but there’s also a sense of high stakes and legitimately pretty awesome scenes. Most of Thunder Run‘s notoriety, in its circulation on cable television, comes from its centrepiece stunt, where Thunder – trailer and all – leaps over a train. That’s the kind of mad, devil-may-care attitude that the film’s later segments excel in, especially when the synth-a-licious soundtrack pounds in the background. (The song that plays over the credits has to be heard; it is breath-taking.*)
It’s also where first-time (and only-time) director Gary Hudson gets a full grasp on his movie. The stodgy editing and awkward dialogue from earlier has long evaporated, allowing him to film his action sequences with clarity and precision. Even then, however, we occasionally cut back to the cobalt mine where Chris’ motley friends are hacking the lasers, or something. I neither know nor care, but I do know that this was, sadly, Forrest Tucker’s final film before his death shortly after it released. What a way to go out.
Thunder Run can be best summed up by a line spoken by Chris’ moustachioed opponent in their drag race: “Look, buddy – I didn’t come out here to get stroked by a squirrel who hasn’t got the bucks.” It’s bizarre, and it makes absolutely no sense, but it’s fucking awesome. Stupid awesome, perhaps. Stawsome. Sure. That’s it.
Thunder Run is fucking stawsome in the way that only Cannon truly could be, and it’s a fitting cap in their enduring camp legacy.
I don’t normally say this, but please watch the trailer. Please.
*A timecode on a Russian dub of the film itself was the best I could find. That song is so, so, soooo good.