It’s been more than fifteen years since war vet Mark Lambert (John Lithgow) returned from serving in Vietnam. In the present day, Mark lives in the woods, away from the world, with a couple of other war friends. When one of their friends commits suicide, he decides to make considerable changes, such as getting a decent job and trying to regain his life. Mark is given a job thanks to an act of kindness from a woman named Char (Kerrie Keane), and the two develop a friendship. Mark begins to share his experiences in Vietnam and the terrible depression he deals with daily.
He also reveals that he has a teenage son. The only time Mark reached out to his son after returning from the war was over the phone, where Mark couldn’t speak a word and just hung up. Now Mark is trying to get his life back on track, and Char encourages him to reach out to his son, Jack (Ralph Macchio), hoping they can reconnect. After Mark finally gets the courage to send a handwritten letter, Jack agrees to meet him. However, what should have been a touching and straightforward father-and-son reunion is soon interrupted, and Mark, Jack and Char now find themselves fighting for their lives on a different battlefield.
Distant Thunder is best described as a heavy drama film focusing on the mental and physical repercussions and damage to those who served on the battlefield. We see first-hand some of Mark’s experiences in the war, including watching many around him getting brutally murdered and Mark himself making it out just barely alive. Time in the war and combat isn’t the only area of his past that keeps him sad, though. His past with his family, including being away from his only son for quite some time, is a deep burden that keeps him wounded. Mark’s world is filled with mental heaviness, trauma and a struggle to move forward.
Performance-wise, it’s exciting and pleasing to see actor John Lithgow play such a dark and sad character who is generally jumpy and wary of others. While his performance is excellent, his character sadly isn’t overly likeable. This is primarily because Mark makes poor choices and excuses. As a viewer, I could never fully grasp why this man hadn’t reached out to his son. Actor Ralph Macchio gives a good performance as Jack, but again, his character has highly vague aspects and questionable moments.
While the film is heavy on drama and performances are generally excellent, the pace and storyline consists of many dull and uninteresting moments, and some plot details can slightly frustrate audiences. Outcomes, especially the third act, are highly predictable but still manage to land in a heartfelt manner, which I enjoyed seeing. For the rest of the film, I wished for more impacting, powerful, and touching moments. I barely felt what the movie was trying to achieve apart from bringing pleasing performances and a clear understanding of the aftermath of war. Maybe I’m a heartless critic. The father and son aspect is an excellent concept, but it should be a more substantial element here. Unfortunately, it’s one of the primary devices that didn’t land correctly.
Overall, there are a few things this film gets correct and other aspects seem slightly off. While I admire the performances of the leads, I can’t deny that the leading actors seem somewhat miscast, and the characters here make strange choices with unexplained moments and backstories. The pacing and story are predictable, and many moments are long and drawn out, which also makes the story, at times, uninteresting and dull. Granted, the film manages to hit hard on an emotional aspect to tie everything in before its credits are finally revealed. Distant Thunder (1988) is Now Available on Blu-ray thanks to Imprint Films / Via Vision Entertainment.