Based on Robert Stone's National Book Award-winning novel 'Dog Soldiers,' "Who'll Stop the Rain" is both a suspenseful thriller and an affecting meditation on the chaos and disillusionment of the Vietnam era.
Converse (Michael Moriarty) is a journalist who went to Vietnam looking for the big story but finds only madness and abject fear. He also discovers that, in a world where nothing makes sense, people are just naturally going to want to get high.
In Saigon, Converse falls in with Charmian (Gail Strickland), a wealthy French expatriate holdout from the Colonial days who maintains a life of relative luxury through narco-trafficking. Weary of the constant despair and terror, Converse agrees to participate in a scheme to smuggle heroin back from Vietnam to Los Angeles. However, Converse can't smuggle the dope himself--the Army is on to the fact that correspondents and GI's have been smuggling kilos of ultra-pure, ultra-cheap heroin back from Southeast Asia and turning large profits selling the dope in the US--so he persuades his old friend, Ray Hicks (Nick Nolte), a Merchant Marine sailor whose vessel is about to set sail from Vietnam for the Pacific Coast, to hide the dope on his ship and then deliver it to Converse's wife Marge (Tuesday Weld), who Converse assures Ray will pay him several thousand dollars for the favor once he makes the delivery.
Ray reluctantly agrees--he's not sure he trusts Converse, but he needs the money. All goes well until Ray arrives in LA and realizes he's being tailed by two thugs (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey) who may or may not be working for Converse. To make things worse, he arrives at the Converse home and meets Marge, who is beautiful but obviously strung out--not on junk, it turns out, but, rather, on prescription painkillers.
The thugs follow Ray to Converse's, and Ray and Marge narrowly manage to escape. Not sure whether he's being double-crossed by Converse or if Converse is being double-crossed by his supplier, Ray decides to go on the run, dragging along the drugged-out Marge. Ray turns out to be a bit of a paranoid survivalist with ties to the now-dwindling hippie counterculture, and takes Marge first to his house, where he keeps a dune buggy and a stash of weapons, and then to hide out in an old, all but deserted commune high in the California Sierra. Ray and Marge go on the road, with the additional complication of Marge's painful withdrawal symptoms, having run out of dilaudid. Ray quickly realizes that the only way to help Marge get off the painkillers while on the run is to start weaning her off--with the heroin.
Meanwhile, Converse has returned to the US to find the plan has gone wrong. Abducted by the thugs (who, it turns out, are working for Charmian and Antheil, a corrupt government agent played by Anthony Zerbe), Converse is forced to help track down Ray and Marge and, more importantly, the sack full of very valuable dope.
Though, like most films, "Who'll Stop the Rain" lacks the subtlety and depth of its literary precursor, the movie quite skillfully employs the novel's biting, cynical perspective on the despair and chaos surrounding both the war in Vietnam and the end of the counter-cultural revolution after Manson and Altamont. While in graduate school at Stanford, novelist Stone was a fringe member of fellow novelist Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters--whose 'Acid Test' parties were the main artery by which LSD was introduced to California youth culture. Among the Pranksters was Neal Cassady, who first found fame as the basis for hipster prototype Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' and later fell in with the Grateful Dead before finding his end by a railroad track in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in 1966. Cassady is the primary model for Ray Hicks, and then-unknown Nick Nolte is perfectly cast in the role, capturing the rough blend of charming rake and pyschopath that made Cassady a counterculture icon. Indeed, the film is rife with references to the Prankster and Beat glory days, easily recognizable to those familiar with the history of those cultural/literary movements.
The film's soundtrack (as the title suggests) consists mostly of songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and though Stone always hated that the producers changed the title from 'Dog Soldiers' to 'Who'll Stop the Rain,' Creedence's catchy country rock is an appropriate background.
Tuesday Weld, the once-popular Hollywood ingenue whose career was derailed by addiction and mental illness, portrays Marge's state of delusional intoxication and emotional distress like one who has actually been there. Michael Moriarty (of 'Law and Order' fame) gives a well-controlled performance as the somewhat cowardly, morally confused Converse. But the show is really Nick Nolte's. Though this film has been largely forgotten, it was a starmaking turn for Nolte, his first shot to carry a movie and the first film in which he begins to establish the rough-edged, sensitive bad-ass persona that has become his stock and trade.
"Who'll Stop the Rain" is a fine piece of vintage seventies memorabilia, a nail-biting thriller, and a useful lens into the confusion of American life during the last years of our military presence in Vietnam.