About 8 years ago, I started reviewing movies. A Blockbuster was still open near my house — oh, how I miss them — and I remember browsing through the aisles at one point thinking ‘Man, there are so many movies out there I haven’t seen.’ And so it began! I remember clearly coming home with today’s flick, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I loved it then and loved it now. A somewhat forgotten classic.
Posing as a preacher in an isolated Montana town, a former thief (Clint Eastwood) finds himself on the run. He’s picked up by an amiable young drifter, Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), who is a few minutes off of stealing a stylish Trans Am. The duo sticks together, both just drifting along looking for a chance to earn some cash, easy cash if possible. The thief, dubbed Thunderbolt by the papers, slowly lets out his story of how he got to be in this spot. “Aiding” the cause? Two of his former gang members are on his trail, all of them looking for clues to a supposedly lost take from a previous job. How to solve it all? That’s Lightfoot’s idea. What if they pulled off the same job in the exact same fashion? There have been crazier ideas…
Talk about a movie where a plot synopsis is unnecessary. This is the one. From director/writer Michael Cimino, ‘Thunderbolt’ is one of the most entertaining movies ever. It can’t be pegged into any one genre. At different points, you can call it a buddy flick, a road trip movie, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a heist flick, an Americana story, a modern western, and several more I could probably list. What makes it so special is that it doesn’t need a linear story. It can bounce among those genres at will and with ease. In terms of pure entertainment, I’m hard-pressed to come with many better.
An established star in Eastwood and a rising star in Bridges are immaculately perfect together. Their chemistry is impeccable. You don’t need a episodic, even linear story when you’ve got two characters like this who keep things moving and generally keep things fairly grounded. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt gets to play the straight man but still gets plenty of laughs. Bridges’ Lightfoot is the motor-mouthed, quick-witted and likable drifter, always ready with an observation, a thought, an opinion and a quick smile. The duo brings Cimino’s script to life. We learn about their background and history in snippets that are never overdone or forced. Like the on-screen chemistry itself, it all feels natural.
One of the best buddy dynamics ever really. You can’t help but like both men. Thunderbolt starts to look after Lightfoot like a little brother while Lightfoot idolizes Thunderbolt and his criminal exploits, not to mention his service during the Korean War. There is an easy-going charm to it all. It’s not Butch and Sundance — my all-timer for comparison of the buddy variety — but it’s really, reallllllly close.
This is a quintessential 1970’s movie too. In the vein of Charley Varrick, The Lineup and countless others, there’s a look and a feel to the story. I was born in 1985 so I don’t know this for sure obviously, but the painting of what 1970’s America is in Montana ends up being an additional character. Small towns, communities that keep to themselves, a picture of a decade that serves as a perfect snapshot. Cimino filmed on-location in Montana, and the visual look is stunningly gorgeous. You could freeze-frame individual shots, print them up and frame them. Was this an accurate vision of small-town America at the time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s what it should have been.
Two other always welcome character actors round out the thieving crew, starting with George Kennedy as Red Leary, a possibly unhinged killer who Thunderbolt always manages to keep under control. Kennedy shows off his range, brimming on psychotic episodes here and there, especially with a hatred for Lightfoot. Geoffrey Lewis plays Goody, the naive, not-so-smart but well-meaning thief who always tags along. An interesting quartet with a history, a backstory revealed slowly but surely as the 115-minute story develops. If it’s confusing early, stick with it. The payoff is worth it. Kennedy is the mystery man here — when will he lose it? — but he delivers some of the movie’s funniest, most memorable lines. His buzz-off to a snarky kid is an all-timer. No spoilers. Watch the movie.
That quartet is in just about every scene in some variety. There are also small, supporting parts for Catherine Bach, Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague in The Andy Griffith Show), Dub Taylor, Roy Jenson, Bill McKinney and Gregory Walcott.
The momentum picks up in the second half as the heist Part 2 comes into play. Still some lighter touches but it goes down a darker path. I’m all for a downer ending, but this has always been a tough one. The heist is pretty cool though, packing some serious punch and some intricate timing. This is a movie that has it all in one capacity or another. One of my favorites, and hopefully one of yours too.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): ****/****