Outside a tiny church in the middle of the nowhere, two strangers have an incredible first meeting. The first stranger is Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), a young punk barreling down the road in a stolen Trans Am with no clear destination. The second stranger is Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood), a former bank robber who made off with half a million dollars and got away clean, only to have his partner die and the money vanish. Thunderbolt's posing as a preacher when one of his "old friends" shows up and tries to kill him, and Lightfoot happens to save him by running over his attacker, and providing him with a ride. The two men form a friendship that culminates in their decision to knock over a second bank, with the help of Thunderbolt's former partners Leary (George Kennedy) and Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis), who show up looking to get revenge for the botched job and missing dough.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is the feature debut of Michael Cimino, who had made his name in commercials. Cimino's screenplay for the film made its way to Eastwood at his Malpaso production company, and after flirting with the idea of directing it himself, he gave Cimino the job. Bridges was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Lightfoot. It's a rich, unique crime caper filled with colorful characters, down to the smallest supporting roles, and features some incredible widescreen imagery of the American countryside, put together with an incredible amount of confidence for someone with the task of directing an established superstar like Eastwood as a debut, even with commercial experience under his belt.
The film's "grizzled veteran and young upstart" relationship is nothing new, but the screenplay is packed with wonderful character detail from beginning to end. Lightfoot has eyes for almost every woman he meets, from the woman who presents herself naked to him and the rest of the crew working on her house to a blonde girl on a motorcycle (Karen Lamm) who hits his work truck with a mallet when he tries to talk to her. Although Leary is arguably the antagonist, even he's got shades, in his comic relationship with Eddie, his constant sneezing problem, and the hints of his former friendship with Thunderbolt, which occasionally shines through, even though he's built up plenty of resentment during a stint in prison. The dialogue is full of comedic and dramatic bite (I like Leary's line about Lightfoot's looks: "It's a good thing I didn't hit him in the face. He'd be dead now.").
This colorful writing applies as much to tiny side characters as it does the protagonists. The gang leverages the loneliness of a fat alarm system guard (Cliff Emmich) who looks at dirty magazines inside his newspaper. While hitchhiking, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot catch a ride from a lunatic (Bill McKinney) with a caged raccoon in his front seat and a trunk full of bunny rabbits. The man in a married tourist couple realizes that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are criminals and starts to have a nervous breakdown without either of them saying a word. When Thunderbolt and Leary show up to get a crucial combination from a bank employee, they discover his daughter sleeping with her boyfriend. The film is packed with rich details that make it more interesting, a rare film where each person who appears on screen believably has a full life unrelated to the events in the story. Although it doesn't motivate the story, it gives the world a lived-in feel, which comes in handy during the movie's intense heist sequence.
Much has been made about Thunderbolt and Lightfoot's supposed homoerotic subtext, and there's no question that idea is present within the film. The wide-grinned Burton Gilliam, playing a welder that Eastwood briefly works with, tells him about a time he put his dick in the fat alarm guard's hand as a prank, and a major part of the heist involves Bridges' character dressing in drag to distract the same guard (upon seeing himself in full makeup for the first time, Lightfoot's admiration for women doesn't stop at himself). Lightfoot also continuously presses Leary's buttons in a noticeably sexual way, mentioning he had a dream about Leary and even placing his hand over Leary's mouth and then kissing it. Most of the relationship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot feels more fatherly, but there's certainly a love between the two men that is central to the story. Both characters were drifting when they met each other outside that random church. When they team up to rob the bank, perhaps it's because they don't know how else to express how much their companionship means to one another.
All of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot's original marketing materials are focused on Thunderbolt's giant cannon, even this one which doesn't contain the cannon at all, but a regular handgun with an oddly lengthy silencer. The one-disc release arrives inside a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is a four-page booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
The Video and Audio
I saw Thunderbolt and Lightfoot for the first time on 35mm a couple of years ago. The print had the usual faded colors and scratches from years of use. I also just watched Twilight Time's The Blue Max, which looked good but was plagued by modern "teal and orange" revisionist color timing. Thus, it is incredibly satisfying to watch Thunderbolt and Lightfoot on Twilight Time's 2.35:1 1080p AVC transfer and see a film that has been properly revitalized. Reds, blues, and greens have a wonderfully accurate, natural vibrancy that just shaves the years off the movie. Detail is very good, bringing out subtleties that were undoubtedly lost on MGM's aged DVD, released just shy of 15 years ago. Whites may crush a little in sunlight, edges can show some color fringing, and in some shots, the image appears just a tiny bit washed out, but it doesn't appear to be the transfer so much as the original source materials. The textural appearance of the image, with its soft, film-like edges and noticeable grain, will remind viewers (in a natural way) that this is an old movie, but other than that, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot looks almost new.
Audio is a DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track, reflecting the film's original theatrical sound mix. For a mono track, this is has a shocking amount of directionality and depth, even if, like the picture, the age shows through the track's slight muffle and distortion. Music and effects are nicely rendered. Bass is non-existent, though. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Two extras are included on the disc. If you're a Twilight Time fan, no guesses what they are. The first is an audio commentary by TT's Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and Hollywood screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Much like their commentary for Khartoum, this is a reasonably strong chat that strongly focuses on the subtext of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. My only complaint about the track is the same as my complaint about the other (if not as pervasive): the participants are so friendly with one another that they're willing to indulge each other's tangents. If a particular passage of the track isn't interesting, it may go on for five to ten minutes, giving the listening experience some distinct peaks and valleys. The disc's only other extra is the film's isolated score, which, unlike the film, is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio. An original theatrical trailer and the Twilight Time menu catalogue are also included.
The first time I saw Thunderbolt and Lightfoot many of its details were lost on me. I was expecting a traditional heist film, or perhaps a traditional Clint Eastwood film, but Cimino's film has a fascinating tenderness and an interest in characters, even the little ones. It's funnier than I remembered, and expertly put together for a debut feature. Twilight Time's Blu-Ray looks absolutely gorgeous, undoubtedly a steep upgrade from the long out-of-print DVD that used to fetch around $70 on the used market. For fans of the film, paying less for a much improved presentation of this little gem should be a no-brainer. Highly recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.