[Paul Schrader seems] to have succumbed to a paralysed narcissism. His cinephile enthusiasms, which have run to simply but powerfully motivated blood and thunder plots, graced with metaphysical ironies ranging from Bresson to [Alfred] Hitchcock, have locked in Rolling Thunder on the most primitive, exploitative level. Ex-Vietnam POW Charles Rane … returns home to San Antonio, Texas, and discovers that his wife wants to leave him for his best friend. However, a gang of thugs erupt into his home in search of one of his valuable coming home gifts, beat and torture him (prompting some flashback allusions to how he endured similar treatment in Vietnam) and leave with the loot after shooting his wife and child. Putting himself into training to streamline his newly acquired artificial hand into a lethal weapon, Rane sets off in pursuit with a Vietnam buddy … more obviously traumatised by the war.
The most revealing thing about this concoction is neither its emotionally over-driven construction, nor its rampaging gratuitous violence, but Schrader's clear grinding down of the ingredients of 'serious' movies like Taxi Driver. In this respect, Rolling Thunder is actually of a different species from [George Romero's] Martin and [John Carpenter's] Assault on Precinct 13. Its movie lore is channelled into the creation of one sustained, gut-wrenching effect, where the pleasures of the other films are more diffuse—their creativity served rather than exhausted by their multiple allusions and borrowings. The collaboration of Schrader and director John Flynn actually fits with Hollywood's standard, carbon-copying processes, along with such low-grade genre rip-offs as Robert Clouse's The Pack and any number of television series at a further, diluted end of the spectrum. (p. 59)
Richard Combs, in his review of "Rolling Thunder," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1977–78, pp. 58-9.