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Writer-director Michael Cimino's first and best directed picture Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a shrewdly concocted combo of buddy comedy and caper flick that also taps the newly-found commercial gold vein for rural-set lowbrow action pictures. Unlike Burt Reynolds' beer 'n' dented fenders epics about Southern boys outrunning fat cat cops, Cimino keeps his action high in the Midwest, under the crystal blue Montana skies.
Produced for Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Company, Michael Cimino apparently brought his script and shot list and left much else up to Eastwood and his producer Robert Daley. We can't imagine Clint indulging a single hour of Cimino's later on-set brainstorms, and the result shows that the new director did an admirable job -- just for blocking, his eye is probably better than Eastwood's. As the majority of the cast comes from the star's stock company and old TV friends, we'd imagine that Cimino accepted most of what he was given in that department. All in all, it's a winning debut feature.
A falling-out among aging thieves has left Red Leary (George Kennedy) obsessed with killing "Thunderbolt" (Clint Eastwood), with help from gang members Eddie Goody and Dunlop (Geoffrey Lewis & Roy Jenson). It seems the hidden loot from their big caper disappeared when the small Montana schoolhouse in which it was hidden was demolished. Thunderbolt is hiding out as a preacher when he's saved from Dunlop by the intervention of young drifter Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). When Goody and Red finally corner Thunderbolt, they instead re-establish their partnership. The smart-talking Lightfoot quickly earns Red's hatred, yet comes up with an idea everybody likes: re-do the old Armored Transport robbery they pulled off several years ago, in the exact same way. They get straight jobs to earn some seed money. As Korean War vets, Red and Thunderbolt will use a large military artillery piece to blast their way into a vault. But can the group make it through the heist without killing each other?
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is neatly packaged to have more than enough action and fresh genre twists to satisfy any audience; with Clint Eastwood as the star the film is a no-risk proposition. High-powered cars and stolen clunkers of every description scream down the country roads amid great scenery under fresh blue skies, making the film's physical appearance as attractive as a western. Of course we never ask where the police and highway patrol might be, especially when our heroes steal cars left and right (one right off a used-car lot) and drive them around for days at a time. The same goes for gun battles on the street -- in a place so sparsely populated one would think our four very distinctive crooks would be in the hoosegow within a few hours. These are the kind of guys that sharp rural cops take note of as soon as they show their faces.
But this is the movies. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a buddy picture in that Cimino gives special weight to the main relationship between Eastwood and Bridges, granting them fairly shallow and jokey dialogue but directing it all quite effectively. Cimino pushes the crude jokes and the sex talk, which along with some vulgar situations earn the film an R rating. Young Lightfoot wears leather pants and attracts women like flies, bringing home a pair of girls for a fast fling. One of them is Catherine Bach, a small part that nevertheless nabs her good billing in this woman-challenged man's crime picture. There's so much playful sex banter, what with Bridges going in drag as part of the heist, that critics including Robin Wood have jumped all over Thiunderbolt as a prime example of the Buddy Picture With Homosexual Overtones, thus proving that every male relationship in every cop and cowboy picture from day one, really has A Hidden Sexual Agenda.
I think Cimino was just compensating for having no women in his film for the men to abuse, and opted for the fun of showing Bridges taunting Red in any way he can. Bridges is so funny at this stuff that he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Of course, the film's (spoiler spoiler spoiler) finish didn't hurt Bridges' chances either. As the curtain is going down, Cimino opts for a dose of hasty sentiment to give his movie some weight. Bridges and Eastwood play it well and Cimino deserves applause too.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is somewhat overlong, a Cimino trademark, and also has problems with redundant action -- just how many times is George Kennedy going to threaten Clint Eastwood & Jeff Bridges and then back off? The "let's all get jobs" episode also drags a bit, even with diversions like Jeff Bridges' near-pornographic encounter with an exhibitionist housewife. Cimino uses beautiful scenery to prevent his movie from moving at a crawl. He also indulges his liking of staging scenes on the banks of beautiful bodies of water. Lightfoot and Thunderbolt find themselves on foot by the beautiful Snake River, which to us looks like something flowing from heaven. When Bridges kneels down and takes a long drink, we think about the daily news bulletins of chemical factory accidents and misdeeds poisoning entire rivers and water supplies. In Cimino's The Deer Hunter Robert de Niro experiences a Thoreau moment by a pre-dawn glacial lake (somewhere in Pennsylvania?). And in Heaven's Gate several scenes are set adjacent to a mirror-like beautiful body of water, notably Kris Kristofferson & Isabelle Huppert's surrey outing to casually discuss onrushing events threatening their lives and livelihoods.
Cimino squeezes a lot of excitement and easy laughs out of this smaller-scale movie, along with some nice touches of thematic resonance. George Kennedy & Geoffrey Lewis are genre manifestations defined mostly by action, with Geoffrey's Goody being too meek to point a gun. Kennedy's Red is always in a hostile mode -- as he sees it, everybody has betrayed him and has a bullet coming. Some of the set pieces Cimino invents are merely clever (the vicious guard dogs that Red foolishly overlooks) and others truly impressive. Thunderbolt returns to the little old schoolhouse only to find it replaced by a nice new construction, and we're reminded of how the changing landscape obliterates our past and makes us feel obsolete. The eventual 'magical' reappearance of the schoolhouse almost redeems the movie's opportunistic basis as a genre thriller aimed at the lowest common denominator. Eastwood and Bridges enter like schoolboys, as if the one-room schoolhouse were Dorothy Gale's home magically returned from Oz, in one piece.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is fun for the minor cast members as well. Gary Busey has a nice bit as a lawn sprinkler installer and Burton Gilliam is the expected moronic working guy, a welder who befriends Thunderbolt. Wild man Bill McKinney lets our heroes hitchhike in his car packed with raccoons and rabbits, but then drives like a maniac. Dub Taylor does his fast-talking act as a gas station attendant and Gregory Walcott is a pushy used car salesman. As pointed out in the disc commentary, Walcott was a TV actor with Clint Eastwood but also starred in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Raunchy and rambling, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot came out at a time when average audiences still took note of the fact that the hero is a thief who in the end gets away with a pile of stolen money. Believe it or not, that was a big topic of discussion with films like Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway -- many moviegoers thought an unwritten movie law decreed that Crime Never Pays.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a beautiful, clean MGM (Deluxe Digital) remaster of this popular action show from the years that Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Company was trying on different studios for comfort fit. The picture is sharp and colorful throughout, with only a hit of granularity showing during the optical title sequences. Interestingly, the typeface for the main titles is the same or similar to that used for Heaven's Gate -- Michael Cimino has frequently expressed his gratitude to Eastwood for his first directing opportunity, and was surely dreaming of ever more larger epics to come.
The Isolated Score Track carries the music of Dee Barton (Play Misty for Me). One scene shows Eastwood's Thunderbolt picking out notes on an old piano; in 1974 only Clint's close associates seem to have known about his musical ambitions. An original theatrical trailer is present. Once again Twilight Time rounds up Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and screenwriter Lem Dobbs to provide a commentary track that might seem more appropriate if one of the participants had a connection to the film. It's an informal and pleasant listen. Ms. Kirgo's insert essay shifts to an appreciation of rough tough Guy's Cinema, with a couple of paragraphs devoted to a well-annotated discussion of the purported "homosexual subtext" in Cimino & Eastwood's high country crime caper.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.