Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

EPSON MFP imageAbout 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): ****/****

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Where Eagles Dare (1968)

where_eagles_dare_posterReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a fan favorite and was a key war movie in terms of its influence. It opened up all sorts of doors for one of my favorite sub-genres, the men-on-a-mission movie. Based off a novel by author Alistair MacLean, it was a gem. MacLean tweaked the idea when he was approached by a producer several years later for a similar but BIGGER and BETTER version. The result? From 1968, Where Eagles Dare.

It’s winter 1943-44 and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) has been summoned for an impossible mission. An agent with years of experience and countless missions under his belt, Smith and a small team of commandos, including an American Ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), will parachute into the snow-capped mountains of Bavaria on a rescue mission. An American general with detailed knowledge of the second front — D-Day — has been captured by German forces and sent to the Schloss Adler, a remote, well-guarded fortress on a mountaintop where he will be interrogated by German intelligence. The clock is ticking with the general’s knowledge potentially altering the course of the war. Smith, Not is all as it seems though as Smith and the team parachute into Germany. What exactly is going on?

The backstory here is fascinating. Burton’s stepson wanted him to do a good, old-fashioned, action-packed flick that audiences would love. Burton approached a producer, the producer approached MacLean who 6 weeks later came to him with the script (and later the novel) for Where Eagles Dare. It became a huge hit and is now considered a classic while still remaining a fan favorite. How can you not love a perfectly random story like that when a movie really hits it big?

Watching ‘Eagles’ and ‘Guns,’ you can’t help but notice the similarities. That’s a good thing though! The impossible mission, the crew of expertly trained specialists, the exotic location, the twists and turns, the betrayals, and as ‘Eagles’ seems to take it as a challenge, the obscene amount of ACTION. I have issues with the story — more later — but as pure entertainment, ‘Eagles’ is a gem, much like Guns of Navarone is/was. This 1968 war flick requires more viewer interaction (better pay attention, you’ll get lost qqquick once the twists start flying), but it’s worth it to keep up throughout the 154-minute run-time.

It’s just cool to watch Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play off each other. That’s all. It just is. Classically trained Burton and tough guy Eastwood have this underplayed charm to their relationship. Burton’s Smith knows what’s going on while Eastwood’s Schaffer is just trying to get through the mission alive. MacLean’s script provides so many great little moments between the duo with both actors not missing a chance to deliver a snappy one-liner. Also, the call sign ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy,’ there’s nothing fancy about it, but Burton’s delivery makes it seem like a Shakespearean sonnet. Sounds almost musical when you hear Burton speak. Moral of the story, both actors are having a ball with the old-fashioned, spy shoot ’em up.

Not much star power here otherwise. Mary Ure is a welcome addition to the cast as Mary, a fellow agent working with Smith. No damsel in distress either. She’s a Badass with a capital B, a part of the team quite capable of using a machine gun to save herself. In small but parts, Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark play high-ranking officers back at HQ waiting for updates. Donald Houston is the most visible of the rest of the team, but they’re there for the purpose of a twist or cannon fodder. Ingrid Pitt plays a barmaid with some secrets while familiar faces Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and Derren Nesbitt play German officers.

What I’ve always found fascinating with ‘Eagles’ is the pacing. The first hour is set-up, all foreboding and mysterious. Clues are dropped here and there — pay attention, it’s worth it — as we’re introduced to the team and the mission. We see Smith and Schaffer put plans into work that won’t pay off — maybe at all — until days later. It seems unnecessary or wasted, but the payoffs are worth it. Now, the middle, the gigantic twist and turn that come at you a mile a minute. It’s a great scene running about 15 minutes where Burton just takes over, oozing charm and mystery in an almost monologue-like scene. Then, there’s the hour-long finale, a bullet-riddled chase and running gunfight where Eastwood dispatches half the German army without a single wound. Ridiculous? Yes, 100 percent, but it’s so damn fun.

A couple other things. Composer Ron Goodwin’s score is a gem, driving the action forward at all times with big, booming music. Listen to an extended part of the soundtrack HERE. Austrian filming locations don’t disappoint either, giving a true sense of authenticity to the impossible mission scenario in the snow-capped mountains. As for the story itself, the twist is awesome and the payoff is very memorable. But let’s face it, it’s ridiculous. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING, works out for Smith almost down to the second. As was the case before though, it’s ridiculous and if you think about it too much, you might just give yourself a headache. The point is….it’s damn entertaining and a hell of a lot of fun.

Just go for the twisting, turning ride with this WWII men-on-a-mission classic. Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton would team up again a little over a year later with another WWII gem, 1970’s Where Eagles Dare. Also a must-see!

Where Eagles Dare (1968): *** 1/2 /****