Essentially a dunderheaded precursor to First Blood (1982), this silly action picture falls midway through the cycle of ’70s and ’80s movies about PTSD-addled Vietnam veterans, both in terms of chronological release and quality. Written and directed by onetime stuntman Max Kleven, Ruckus avoids the sleazy extremes of some PTSD flicks, because it doesn’t edge into kinky sex stuff or linger on violence. Unfortunately, by taking the genteel approach, Ruckus ends up seeming cartoonish, a problem exacerbated by Kleven’s genuinely terrible screenplay. Characters in Kleven’s world do things simply because they’re convenient for the story, or because some similar character took a similar action in another movie. Nothing here rings true. Kleven’s direction isn’t much better than his writing, and he regularly slips into unintentional goofiness, as during the spectacularly dumb dirt-bike scene (more on that later). In the first-time filmmaker’s defense, he did not land top-shelf actors for the leading roles. He got Dirk Benedict and Linda Blair.
The story starts the usual way, with a drifter ambling into a small town. Locals hassle him simply because he’s different. The drifter is Kyle Hanson (Benedict), who for reasons that are never explained has thick mud caked onto his face. While eating lunch at a roadside stand, Kyle encounters Sam Bellows (Ben Johnson), a rich guy whose son is an MIA soldier. This explains why Kyle finds a receptive audience when, later, he breaks into Sam’s home and meets Sam’s voluptuous daughter-in-law, Jenny (Blair). She helps Kyle hide from the locals who are chasing him. Eventually, Ruckus becomes a weird survival story because Kyle occupies a small island and uses guerilla tactics, martial arts, and stolen explosives to rebel invaders.
None of this makes sense, but Kleven bombards viewers with colorful images. At his worst, he loses his grip on what should be a serious tone—witness the bizarre spectacle of Jenny and Kyle doing coordinated dirt-bike jumps in slow-motion as if they’re Mr. and Mrs. Evel Knievel. Benedict is quite bad, too big in unhinged scenes and too small in quiet scenes, while Blair is blandly sweet and Johnson phones in a non-performance. Only Richard Farnsworth, playing a seen-it-all sheriff, hits the right notes. Incidentally, it’s fun to survey the film’s various posters, seeing as how this picture was marketed as everything from a laugh-a-minute lark to an ultraviolent shoot-’em-up. Alternate titles include Big Ruckus in a Small Town, Eat My Smoke, The Loner, and Ruckus in Madoc County.