Monday, 20 July 2015

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Classic 70s Heist/Buddy Picture

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Dir. Michael Cimino
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy,
Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, Bill McKinney, Dub Taylor

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I don't think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero."
- Jeff Bridges as "Lightfoot" in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
The big sky of Montana has never looked quite as beautiful as it does in Michael (The Deer Hunter) Cimino's directorial debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but every so often an object, seemingly innocent on the surface, enters the frame and its mere presence takes on a strange kind of malevolence - as if that big sky is bearing witness to potential chaos amidst the natural, peaceful order of the dazzling sun beaming down upon the flat, limitless ocean of prairies.

The opening wide shots of a church should feel at home here, but the structure just doesn't feel right, its spire jutting up aberrantly from the Earth. Hymns of worship waft gently in the wind across the fields; innocent enough until a lone vehicle enters the frame and moves slowly amidst the empty, parked cars of the parishioners within. Whatever natural order exists, we're sure something's seriously amiss.

That big old American sky, the brilliant white church and the rolling fields are little more than a piping hot apple pie cooling in the summer breeze, but its insides are harbouring a pulpy sweet mash laced with arsenic. It's America, don't you know. The preacher seems amiable enough, his parishioners all eyes and ears, but when the front doors burst open and two gents adorned in shades and tacky dark sport coats brandish firearms, America the Beautiful gets just a little less so.

It's a big, old American film, too, so in short order we realize the Preacher is Clint Eastwood, no genuine Man of the Cloth, but a Man in Hiding and the mysterious gents, the bulky, malevolent carrot-topped George Kennedy and his sidekick, none other than Geoffrey Lewis, the short, wiry little man with the bug-eyes are hell-bent on blasting the fake preacher to Kingdom Come.

It's one hell of an opening and it doesn't get less intense as guns blaze and Eastwood hightails across an open prairie with the slavering madmen in pursuit until, as Good Old Fashioned American Luck will have it, a genial car thief, played no less than by the blondy-locked pretty boy Jeff Bridges, barrels along a country road and provides rescue and flight for our preacher, who by now we know, is no preacher.

Bridges assumes as much also as he quips, "You ain't no country preacher, Preacher."

If this were a classic romantic comedy, which it kind of is, since Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is very much in the tradition of 70s American bro-mances like Scarecrow, Midnight Cowboy, California Split and Your Three Minutes Are Up, one might refer to this mad, action-packed first meeting twixt eventual best buddies Eastwood and Bridges as a "meet-cute" (albeit with guns blazing and big American cars roaring across open roads).

And though on the surface, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a crime picture with a major bank heist as its central set piece, make no mistake - this is a road movie romantic comedy, a kind of It Happened One Night with lots of snappy one-liners and big, really big, guns.

And lest we forget, all those big, glorious American cars our heroes keep stealing as they make their way across Montana State, are the vehicles of choice as opposed to the Dirty 30s buses and trains of Capra's great classic.

Though Cimino handles the action with the skill he honed and brought to bear years later with The Deer Hunter and Year of the Dragon (as well as the sheer visual majesty of Heaven's Gate), this is first and foremost an ambling, episodic buddy road movie; character-driven and full of all manner of oddball narrative touches.

At the heart of the film are our two title characters - mismatched from the start, but gradually finding the common ground that makes for deep love and friendship. Eastwood's "Thunderbolt" is older, wiser and more cynically realistic than his nutty wisecracking little buddy Lightfoot. He's clearly from the post-Korea-post-Vietnam generation who served loyally and got bupkis for it in the real world. Lightfoot is the "hippie" - all youthful ideals and a sense of humour that keeps cracking the shell of his "old man" best buddy.

Like lovers, they're made for each other, the same way opposites attract. Perhaps overriding it all, though is a combination of big-brother-little-brother and perhaps even father and son. One of the more moving and sadly prophetic moments in the film is when the eager Lightfoot happily and boastfully feels like the two men could be legendary.

"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," Bridges beams. "You know, that really sounds like something." Then he adds, with jokey pride in Thunderbolt's direction, "Hey, you stick with me kid. You do and you're gonna live forever."

It's a moment that strangely parallels a later scene when Eastwood looks at Bridges and says "You don't look so good, kid." Bridges replies, probably with the line that nabbed him his first Oscar nomination, "I believe you're right."

Eastwood's Thunderbolt has been around Hell's block a few times and back again. He's been to war and he knows enough to realize that "back home" is just another battleground - nobody, lives forever, anywhere, anytime. This is especially true given that are buddies eventually hook up with the crazy-ass criminal cranks from the film's opening. George Kennedy's Red Leary has meanness hard-wired into his DNA and he takes an immediate dislike to Lightfoot - so much so that he reminds the lad that Thunderbolt and he "go back a long way. But you don't mean nothin' to me, understand? Nothin'!" Lightfoot asks him why he tried to kill Thunderbolt if they were so close.

"Because," Red Leary snarls (in George Kennedy's trademark rancourous tone), "Because we were friends."

Nothing in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ever feels quite right and it's what makes the film so special. Like the natural beauty dappled with occasional intrusions of malevolence, Cimino's screenplay takes numerous strange turns as it moves towards the inevitable big heist and eventual series of bad-guy fallouts. Even then, Cimino's story shocks and surprises and we're eventually left with a big old American movie - as grand and elegiac as the big old skies of Montana.

It's kind of like when Eastwood furrows his brow upon first hearing Bridges' name "Lightfoot" and asks him if it's an "Indian" name.

"Nope," Bridges replies. "Just American."


Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is available on Kino-Lorber DVD.