CRIMEWATCH: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot
Michael Cimino made his big screen directing debut with this 1974 buddy-crime-road film starring a young Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood. Cimino had previously co-written another Eastwood film, Magnum Force (the sequel to Dirty Harry) with John Milius the year before he began working on this project.
A loner named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) with nothing to lose except some time, steals a sportscar from a local Montana car dealership. Meanwhile at a nearby church service, a minister (Clint Eastwood) is finishing up a sermon, after which an armed assassin tries to kill him. As the preacher runs through the field outside, luckily Lightfoot, who is driving through, clips the guy, killing him in the process. The stunned preacher decides to hitch a ride with the crazy kid who saved his life. After some introductions, the two tag along together and hit the Montana highways becoming fast friends. Lightfoot soon discovers the innocent minister he helped out is actually a famous criminal nicknamed “The Thunderbolt” because of a large gun he used to knock down the wall of a bank. While on the move, Lightfoot runs into a hot gal (Catherine “Daisy Duke” Bach) and gets her to bring her friend to him and Thunderbolt’s hotel room for some hanky panky.
Unbeknownst to them, Thunderbolt’s ex-criminal partners “Red” Leary (George Kennedy) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) are tailing them because of a large cache of stolen money they robbed which Thunderbolt along with a now deceased partner hid years earlier. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are able to evade the two men on the first assassination attempt, but the next time they are ambushed in their latest stolen car and forced to drive to the outskirts of town where they are almost executed at gunpoint. In a rare show of honor, Thunderbolt is given the chance to fistfight Leary fair and square and he wins, which turns the dire situation around.
With the impending danger gone, Lightfoot proposes an idea: that they go pull another heist together at the same Western Union office they hit before. The men all agree, but with no money or equipment, and their electronics expert Dunlap (the same assassin who tried to kill Thunderbolt earlier) dead, they decide to get jobs in the area to save up what they need to do the job. They go ahead with the heist but with any crime scheme, unforseen troubles often arise and can destroy what seems to be the perfect idea.
For me, this is a perfectly executed 70s crime movie, with a storyline that could’ve easily been made as a Western. You’ll notice how in several scenes the cars are driven offroad through the rough mountainous terrain like horses would be a century before. Michael Cimino’s direction is in top form, especially considering this was his first feature. The visual motifs of the pastures and long stretches of Montana road would be reused several times in his later films like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1980).
The film contains fantastic performances from everyone involved, most notably Jeff Bridges who stands out as the young upstart Lightfoot, giving the movie its freewheeling, fun edge while Eastwood plays the older wiser criminal who is a bit more cautious and apprehensive about their situation. George Kennedy is one of the best heavies in cinema when he turns on the mean persona and his Red Leary is a great baddie role. Gary Busey makes an early cameo as one of Lightfoot’s co-workers, he’s known for crazy roles now but back in the 70s he often played the southern, goodhearted buddy. He and Bridges actually played brothers a year earlier in The Last American Hero. Look for an especially memorable scene where Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hitch a ride with none other than Bill “Squeal like a pig” McKinney as a deranged character who drives a muscle car filled with rabbits and a raccoon!
Singer-songwriter Paul Williams performed the films’ only featured pop song “Where Do We Go From Here?”, a breezy mellow gold 70s theme to this tale about two modern day outlaw/pals.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is another crime genre gem from the 70s along with films like Charley Varrick and The Hot Rock, that film fans should definitely check out!