Thunderheart (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Jun 19, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Thunderheart (Blu-ray Review)


Michael Apted

Release Date(s)

1992 (May 21, 2024)


Tribeca Productions/Waterhorse Productions/TriStar Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B-

Thunderheart (Blu-ray Disc)



A first-rate Neo-Western murder mystery, Thunderheart stars Val Kilmer as Ray Levoi, a special agent and rising star within the FBI who’s sent to assist in the investigation of a shooting death on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Ray is chosen for the task by his superiors because his father was Oglala Sioux—it’s hoped that he might be more acceptable to the locals, who distrust the federal government. But Ray chaffs at the mention of his Native American heritage and the legendary agent he’s assigned to, a good-old-boy named Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff), also recognizes the empty gesture. “In the right light, you kinda remind me of Sal Mineo in Arrows on the Prairie. Other than that, your coming here is like pissin’ in the wind,” he declares upon meeting Ray at the airport.

Almost immediately, Ray fails to garner sympathy. As they inspect the crime scene, Ray roughs up a potential suspect... who turns out to be the tribe’s sheriff, Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene, Dances with Wolves). To make matters worse, Ray soon learns that the locals are embroiled in intra-tribal conflict. A local Native-rights movement called ARM has been encouraging the tribe members to reclaim their heritage by any means necessary, including violence. One of the tribe’s leaders (Fred Ward, Escape from Alcatraz) has organized a right-wing goon squad to keep ARM at bay. And Coutelle tells Ray that their chief suspect in the murder is a leader in the ARM movement. But as Ray interviews the locals, including a feisty school teacher and an elderly medicine man, he begins to question the identity of the killer. And as he digs deeper, Ray starts to suspect Coutelle’s motives, and discovers that the situation is far more complicated than he was led to believe.

Set against the stark beauty of the South Dakota Badlands, Thunderheart is based loosely on real events that took place on the Pine Ridge reservation in the 1970s. Directed by Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough, Gorky Park, Coal Miner’s Daughter, the Up series), and co-produced by Robert De Niro (with Jane Rosenthal and John Fusco), Thunderheart resonates with humanity, Native spirituality, and careful attention to detail regarding Lakota custom and history. The screenplay is deftly written by Fusco (Young Guns, Hidalgo, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) so that the story unfolds carefully, maintaining an air of mystery right to its satisfying conclusion.

Kilmer and Shepard are both very good here, but it’s Greene who really steals the show. His irreverence for Kilmer’s character (whom he calls “the Washington Redskin”) is obvious. The wise-ass banter between the two is continually entertaining and it’s fascinating to watch as a grudging respect develops between them. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Ted Thin Elk (as the medicine man) and Sheila Tousey (as the teacher, Maggie Eagle Bear). What’s more, the soundtrack—by the Academy Award-winning composer James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart, Apollo 13)—is an oft-overlooked gem, featuring haunting synth tones, Native vocals and instrumentation, metallic percussion, and moody electronic textures.

Thunderheart was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Blade Runner: 2049) using Arriflex cameras and spherical lenses. It was finished on film at the 1.85:1 flat aspect ratio for its release into theaters. While it first appeared on DVD back in 1998, for one reason or another, Thunderheart has never been released on Blu-ray until now. Fortunately, Sony has completed a new 4K scan of the original camera negative for the occasion (note that a 4K Digital version is available with HDR10 high dynamic range—one can only hope that if this Blu-ray sells well, a physical 4K release may follow eventually). The resulting image quality is very good overall, with abundant detail and refined texturing. The film’s palette is a bit subdued by design, but the colors remain natural and accurate. The contrast too is pleasing, with natural-looking highlights and nice detail visible in the shadows. A light wash of photochemical grain remains in evidence at all times, adding the final touch to a nicely cinematic presentation.

The film’s original English soundtrack is included in a 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless mix. The soundstage is medium-wide up front, with excellent overall clarity, robust mids, and firm bass. Dialogue is clear and well centered at all times. Panning is smooth and natural, if not lively, while the surround channels offer a bit of directionality and effective atmospheric immersion that creates a good sense of discrete environments. Horner’s score is particularly well served here; it’s never sounded better. This is a no-frills mix to be sure, given the film’s vintage and style, but it’s pleasing nonetheless and serves the imagery well. Optional subtitles are available in English and English SDH.

Sony’s Blu-ray release contains the film in 1080p HD, along with the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary with John Fusco
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:30)

The good news here is that the audio commentary is new, recorded specifically for this release. Interestingly, Fusco reveals at the start of the track that he and Apted once recorded another commentary for this film that’s never been released. Whether it was lost, or Apted wasn’t happy with it, or there’s some other reason the track wasn’t used is unknown, but perhaps it will surface one day. In any case, Fusco delivers a fascinating and constant stream of behind-the-scenes information, trivia, and anecdotes here. There are a couple of miscues—at one point Fusco refers to “the late Roger Deakins.” But it’s still a good track, and it’s clear that the entire project was instigated as a result of Fusco’s interest in the subject matter. There’s no Digital code in the package, but the disc does include a full frame theatrical trailer for the film in SD resolution.

Thunderheart is an intriguing mystery that features taut direction, evocative cinematography, and a story that’s alive with heart and spirit. Not only is Val Kilmer in his prime here, he gives one of his best performances and Graham Greene matches him step for step. Apted’s film hasn’t gotten nearly the love or attention it deserves, so it’s great to see Sony bringing it to Blu-ray at long last. I’m still holding out hope for a Thunderheart 4K Ultra HD release one day, but I’m very happy with this disc in the meantime. Recommended.

- Bill Hunt

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