THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, 1974
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey
After spending years as a thief in exile; John “Thunderbolt” Doherty (Clint Eastwood) crosses paths with chancing drifter Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) who convinces him to repeat a previous heist with his old crew. But as with all “great ideas” things don’t always go according to plan…
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Michael Cimino is something of an anomaly. After he made The Deer Hunter (1978) he was lauded with many awards and went on to make the notorious Heaven’s Gate (1980) that was widely rejected by critics even though some claimed it was misunderstood. Aside from The Deer Hunter his films are indeed quite different from the rest of his contemporaries. They are slightly odd in their set up and the way they develop as stories on screen. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is very much in this vein.
From the outset the movie looked a lot like a buddy-action/thriller that would be about character with a straightforward story. This film is one of those rare film experiences where the film quite frequently switches gears and genres. While this is refreshing, with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot you wonder why the film does this. The opening plays like a road movie with Lightfoot saving the exiled Doherty and embarking on a freewheeling journey down the road.
The first third of the movie is perhaps the most fun. Eastwood and Bridges make good screen buddies; the scene where they pick up a pair of young ladies is quite entertaining. What forms from this relationship is a strange type of student-mentor dynamic. Doherty is cynical about Lightfoot’s carefree attitude to life (because he has more life experience) and from this we realize there maybe a moral story at play here.
Once Doherty is reunited with his bumbling buddies (you do wonder why such a slick thief like Doherty ever got mixed up with these hapless crooks) they decide to add Lightfoot to their gang. It would appear that Cimino was trying his hand at comedy here and perhaps not really pulling it off. As Lightfoot was responsible for knocking-off their former colleague, the other crooks deeply resent him and you get the feeling there may be a double-cross on the cards.
As mentioned earlier, the section that involves the team taking on odd jobs seems to be something that isn’t required for a film like this. The film goes off in tangents with each character and the pace clearly sags. The most entertaining part is Lightfoot’s job, he borrows the work truck and in characteristic style tries to pursue a young lady on a motorbike. Aside from this the comedy is fairly thin on the ground.
Finally we get to the heist, sadly it isn’t much of a caper and feels under worked in terms of suspense… but it does allow us a peak at Jeff Bridges in a dress (a rare treat). In the end both Doherty and Lightfoot are double-crossed by their fellow crooks and the tragic Lightfoot takes a vengeful kicking to the head. At this point the film moves back into the morality tale promised earlier in the film. Cimino has always dealt with serious drama better than comedy and perhaps he finally realized it here?
It’s in the ending that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot redeems itself. Miraculously, Doherty and Lightfoot discover the swag from the previous heist is still safe and sound… basically all is not lost! However the effects of Lightfoot’s head kicking are taking effect and he is clearly not well as he meets his tragic end in Doherty’s passenger seat. This tragic road movie ending owes much to Easy Rider (1969). Alas Lightfoot’s carefree attitude catches up with him.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a movie that die-hard Eastwood and Bridges fans may or may not look up. What is certain is this movie will divide its audience but sadly is unlikely to build a cult following which is something that would certainly help it.
Surinder Singh – Feb 2010