This vigilante film has a bit of a reputation among film buffs - Quentin Tarantino has long been a fan (I'm sure the returning Vietnam POW stuff influenced the Chris Walker scene in Pulp Fiction), it was co-written by Paul Schrader whose reputation seems to be nothing these days but whose 70s output is highly regarded, the reputation of director John Flynn is rising, it received a famously bad preview where the audience almost rioted.
Watching the film years on I wasn't that knocked out by it. Flynn directs in a solid, almost polite way - the story is inherently exciting but it's not that an exciting film. William Devane's hand is shoved in garbage disposal unit but we don't hear crunching sound effects or see anything bloody - it's implied. The deaths off his wife and son happen off screen. The opening credit sequence features a crappy 70s love ballad and it takes ages for any action to happen. Indeed there's only a few action sequences - the attack on Devane, Devane smacking around an informer, Devane taking on one of the crooks and his cronies, the boyfriend of Devane's wife shooting out with some baddies, and the final shoot out.
If you're looking for high voltage vigilante movie this doesn't really deliver, except maybe at the end when Flynn lets loose and shows blood, carnage and nudity (the climax is set at a whorehouse) that he's been restrained about to now. Actually a lot of the movie feels restrained - it's as though Devane and Tommy Lee Jones should die at the end but they don't (though admittedly they could be mortally wounded - the film ends abruptly.)
The first act is well-done drama, with William Devane adjusting to coming home, being told by his wife that she's fallen for another man, struggling to reconnect with his son (similar to Homeland). The role of the woman who falls for him is surprisingly complex and well drawn and very well played by Linda Haynes. The quality of acting is high - though Devane was a little cold. I get that he's detached and all that but he's got to have some emotion because he goes on a rampage and Devane never coveys that. In his defence he wears mirrored sunglasses a lot but for instance Tommy Lee Jones conveys far more instability in his stillness.
There's some odd bits - the abrupt ending (as mentioned), the large amount of screen time given to the 2IC of the baddy gang (Luke Askew) but not the ringleader (James Best). It wasn't clear why the gang let Devane live when they killed his wife and kid. I remember reading Schrader's script and liking how it was the fact the former POW could distance himself from reality helped him survive the camp but also meant he couldn't act to help his wife and child... that's not clear here.
There are some great bits too - Devane making a weapon out of his hook; the feel of small town Texas; the prominence given to Hayne's role; and especially the moment where Devane tells Tommy Lee Jones he's found the guys and Tommy just says "let's go". To give the film it's due it's very much a character-driven piece.