Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy screen persona had solidified by the mid-’70s, as had his stringent control over projects—even when he wasn’t also directing, Eastwood ensured that his films were brand-consistent and supremely efficient. Given this closely held authority, it’s interesting to look at the handful of ’70s pictures for which Eastwood gave other filmmakers more latitude than usual. A good case in point is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the directorial debut of Michael Cimino, whose subsequent films—notably The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1980)—are known for their epic scale. Obviously, “epic” wasn’t going to fly with Eastwood, so Cimino, who also write Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, confined his ambitions to a tight storyline, although Cimino’s taste for big-canvas cinema is evident in the John Ford-style panoramic shots of various Montana locations.
A straightforward crime picture with an undercurrent of fatalism, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot begins when exuberant young car thief Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) encounters a country preacher (Eastwood) who is inexplicably running from a maniac with a machine pistol. After helping the preacher escape, Lightfoot learns his new pal is actually the infamous bank robber known as “Thunderbolt” because he once used a cannon to bust into a vault. The man trying to kill Thunderbolt is a former accomplice, Leary (George Kennedy), who mistakenly believes Thunderbolt stole the haul from a heist they committed together. Eventually, Leary catches up with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and accepts Thunderbolt’s story that the money was lost, so the three men—together with Leary’s nervous wingman, Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), conspire to rob another bank and replace the missing cash. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot isn’t precisely a buddy movie or a heist picture, nor is it merely a car-chase flick or a thriller. Rather, it’s an ingenious amalgam of all of those genres, a sampler plate of manly-man tropes.
Individualization is generally kept to a minimum so characters can function as archetypes, although Brudges’ buoyant performance distinguishes Lightfoot from everyone else—he’s brash and irresponsible, yet so full of life he makes even the worst situations feel like exciting adventures. Cimino avoids romanticizing the lifestyles of his characters, accentuating the collateral damage criminals inflict and illustrating the cost criminals pay for making dangerous choices. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is so offbeat and so well made, from the atmospheric production values to the painterly cinematography, that it’s tempting to read deeper meanings into the material, especially when Bridges’ vibrant acting raises Eastwood’s game in their shared scenes. Alas, this is really just an elevated brand of escapism, which means its virtues are, on close inspection, quite modest. That said, the picture is highly rewarding for viewers with appropriately calibrated expectations.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: GROOVY