Michael Cimino’s redneck heist movie feels like a Roger Corman film with bigger stars and less social commentary.
If you look at the poster art for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, you might expect the film to be some sort of macho Seventies cop movie. Rarely has a movie been so needlessly misrepresented by promotional material. In fact, the film is the first of Clint Eastwood’s occasional trips into the world of the redneck action comedy that was more the domain of producers like Roger Corman in that decade. This movie is essentially a macho, higher budget -and higher concept – version of films like Big Bad Mama, Dixie Dynamite and assorted other good ol’ boy movies that seemed to replace westerns as the fantasy outlaw image of the American South at the time. Corman would’ve made the film a lot shorter and might have demanded a bit more nudity (as well as some female characters of substance, ironically), but this is very much along the lines of the sort of films he was making.
This is a movie of two halves. For the first hour, we follow the adventures of an unlikely pair of characters – Clint Eastwood is the country preacher who finds himself the target for a gun-toting maniac and is rescued by younger car thief Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). It’s clear that Eastwood is no ordinary preacher, and as the pair bond over petty crime, sexual pickups and other adventures – avoiding a pair of would-be hit-men as they go – Eastwood reveals himself to be a bank robber nicknamed ‘Thunderbolt’, with his attackers consisting of former gang members who believe that he has double-crossed them and stolen the half a million proceeds of their biggest heist. In fact, the money still remains hidden away, in a small schoolhouse, and the pair set out to find it.
This part of the story ends as they discover that the schoolhouse is no longer where it was, and are then captured by the angry Red (George Kennedy) and his hapless sidekick Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis). So begins a narrative shift, as the four fight it out and then reach an understanding, agreeing to recreate the original robbery – after all, if it worked once, why won’t it work again? So the film becomes a heist movie, with the hapless foursome being forced to get regular jobs in order to finance the crime as they make their meticulous plans and then carry out the robbery. Of course, as with all such stories, while the initial robbery seems to go perfectly, small mistakes cause things to go quickly wrong…
Given how bloated Michael Cimino’s films would become son after this, it’s impressive to see how tight a film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is. Although it clocks in at nearly two hours, it feels pretty lean, with no moments that don’t feel as though they are serving the narrative. The first half is essentially a road movie and buddy comedy, with Eastwood and Bridges making an appealing and natural pair, and when Kennedy and Lewis are introduced, they seem the mirror image of Eastwood and Bridges – while the original pair have respect and affection, these two are ill-matched, Red’s bullying aggression contrasting with Eddie’s easy-going style. Kennedy is on top form as the sexually frustrated, bitter and scheming Red – it’s obvious that with him on the team, the possibility of disaster and double-crossing is high.
This is decidedly macho stuff, of course. While Bridge’s character plays with sexuality to torment Red – and has to dress in drag for the heist – this is definitely a film aimed at Real Men. The female characters are little more than sex objects, quite literally – they exist only as pickups that the boys can’t wait to be rid of after they’ve had their wicked ways, or to provide gratuitous nudity (the surprising thing is that there is less nudity than you might expect, the film being oddly coy in the first hour – certainly, the current 18 certificate is rather baffling, as there isn’t an excess of sex, violence or swearing). If you fret about levels of female representation in cinema, this is not going to be an enjoyable experience for you, I suspect. The entire thrust of this story is one of male bonding, betrayed friendships and unspoken bromances.
Interestingly, for what is essentially a light caper comedy, the film takes a deliberate swerve to the dark side in its final act. The aftermath of the heist sees some brief but rather brutal violence and the tone becomes considerably bleaker as the cops move in. There are a couple of moments of humour here that feel ill-judged, given the rather grim tone that the film has adopted – always an issue when a lightweight movie suddenly becomes a lot heavier. But they awkward tonal clashes are infrequent – for the most part, the film skilfully manages the transition from yee-hahing action comedy to something a lot darker with aplomb, and it sustains this tone through to the ending, which is very much in keeping with cynical 1970s styles. For once, we see a realistic portrayal of what a severe beating might do to a person, and the final moments are bitter-sweet.
As you might expect, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot looks great – the Montana scenery is put to full use, and Cimino offers some great sweeping vistas that give the simple story a sense of grandeur that it might otherwise not have. Certainly, it is the visual style that lifts the movie out of the low budget redneck romp genre that was filling drive-ins at the time, and the smart placement of a theme song by Paul Williams adds a wistful touch that was also beyond many of those movies.
It might seem facetious to say that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is Cimino’s best film, but it’s certainly his most enjoyable work, and one of the best Eastwood movies of the time outside of his Dirty Harry series. It’s a much better film than the poster art suggests, and if not exactly seminal 1970s cinema, it’s definitely archetypal.
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