Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A diverting heist movie or western? Not much info going in here.
What did I get? The underappreciated Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a 1970s movie in the truest sense thanks to its deep trust in the quirks of character to moor its plot. Riskily, it feels like a different movie every fifteen minutes, calling to mind, at least in this respect, Jonathan Demme’s 1986 masterpiece Something Wild. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate would famously bring the director-centric (some would say self-indulgent) 1970s cinema crashing to a close, but in his first feature there’s much to admire.
Crammed with winsome (sometimes raunchy) incident, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot devours genres: it’s a comedy that feels like a contemporary western, a picaresque set in a single (albeit expansive) location, a heist movie indifferent to heists, and a buddy movie in which the two principals scarcely know each other. Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges play the eponymous pair, grifters both who meet by chance while each is fleeing capture in scenic Chouteau County, Montana. The progress of their fast friendship is interrupted by a pair of soreheads who keep firing shotguns at them; it turns out to be grouchy Red Leary and dimwitted Eddie Goody, two former buddies of Thunderbolt (that’s Eastwood) still upset about a heist gone bad eleven years earlier. In short order the four of them decide to recapitulate that original crime.
George Kennedy’s effective performance as Leary recalls his far briefer turn as the malevolent Scobie in the 1963 Cary Grant caper Charade; Leary’s endless reserves of resentment supply much of the emotional content of the movie’s middle section while also instigating the eventual dissolution of the gang. Leary’s apparently generational animus against the callow, freewheeling Lightfoot prompts Thunderbolt’s protection, bringing the two closer. Constituting a counterpoint to Kennedy’s cauldron of impatience and Clint’s usual flinty demeanor, the sweetness of Bridges’s Lightfoot and Malpaso axiom Geoffrey Lewis’s Goody proves a narrative wild card that grounds this jumble of tropes into something more recognizably human.
Cimino’s evident fancy for the mundane, unexpected detail elevates the material. The first car the two fellas boost happens to feature a full complement of dresses draped across the back seat. While hitchhiking, they are picked up by a crazed yahoo with a caged raccoon in the passenger seat and a passel of sprightly rabbits in the trunk. A life-or-death fistfight grinds to a halt because one of the combatants suffers from asthma. After they agree to undertake the heist, Goody gets a job operating an ice cream trolley (with Leary perched ridiculously alongside him) but must be informed by a local tot on the contours of his correct route. The seemingly throwaway appearance of familiar faces like Burton Gilliam and Gary Busey is utterly typical of the movie’s pleasures.
Much has been made of the movie’s homosexual subtext, what with Thunderbolt pointing out Lightfoot’s blue eyes in their opening exchange; a bit later Lightfoot remarks, “We gotta stop meeting like this, people are gonna talk.” (In the very next scene, Lightfoot rustles up a couple of pretty girls to fuck, seemingly to establish their hetero credentials.) In this light, the scarcely motivated group decision that calls for Lightfoot to carry out the heist in drag takes on extra meaning. Credit the movie for understanding the homoeroticism implied by the buddy movie genre, but the relationship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seems far closer to that of father and son.
In a way, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a more successful version of the previous #1, the execrable Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, another heist movie with scads of automotive action situated in the Great Western Nowhere. But unlike the makers of that clunker, Cimino understands that the accelerations and decelerations of cars do not a satisfying movie make. The motivations of the two sets of characters share a certain WTF? quality, but here the events seem much more purposeful.
What here smacks of 1974? The absence of overt audience calculation.
IMDB score: 7.0
My score: 7
Director: Michael Cimino
Writer: Michael Cimino
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Eugene Elman, Burton Gilliam, Roy Jenson, Claudia Lennear, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott
IMDB synopsis: Seven years after a daring bank robbery involving an anti-tank gun used to blow open a vault, the robbery team temporarily puts aside their mutual suspicions to repeat the crime after they are unable to find the loot from the original heist, hidden behind a school chalkboard. The hardened artilleryman and his flippant, irresponsible young sidekick are the two wild cards in the deck of jokers.