FOSSIL FILMS is a spoiler-heavy column devoted to unearthing the films that have either been lost to time, forgotten by the masses or just plain ignored. Some of these flicks will be good, some will be classics and some will be pretty bad. The standing question will be, is this movie worth being discovered (or rediscovered) or should it remain a fossil film?
PLOT: An odd, mostly forgotten, footnote in the careers of Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is an odd film to peg down to a single genre. One could argue that the film is a straight buddy comedy with elements of the late 60s road movie fad (kicked off by EASY RIDER) thrown in for good measure and you’d be right in thinking that.
Then again, you’d also be correct in saying that this flick is a heist movie with a very quirky sense of humor and a good bit commentary on the war of the classes that was waged during the Vietnam era (Bridges is very much of the hippie movement and co-star George Kennedy is a Korean War vet). And if you want to get technical, this flick is also a cheapie drive-in car chase picture, a low-brow comedy, a dark drama and a possible love story between two con men just looking to make a quick buck (that last one requires some interpretation, but the pieces are there for you to assemble).
AVAILABILITY: Difficult, but not impossible. Netflix doesn’t have it at all, but Amazon does. Problem is that it will set you back about fifty bucks to buy a new copy of it on DVD. Reason? Out of print. Used copies are a bit cheaper and they do have the “Watch It Now” option available for ten bucks, but do you really want to watch this flick on your computer? Considering the gorgeous vistas on display here, this is really a movie for the biggest set you have in your house.
As a sidenote, I find it strange that a movie that features both Clint Eastwood AND Jeff Bridges is so damn hard to come by. Seriously, almost all Eastwood’s post-FISTFUL OF DOLLARS flicks are readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray (the only other notable exceptions being THE WITCHES from 1967) and most of Flynn…er, I mean, Jeff Bridges work is out there. So what’s the deal? Does somebody over at MGM just hate this flick and want it out of print? Oh well…let’s talk about the movie a bit.
THE RUNDOWN: If there is a problem to be had with THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, it is that it doesn’t have any idea what it really wants to be. Writer/director Michael Cimino (his first directorial effort) crams so many different ideas into the 115 minute runtime that you have to wonder if even he knew what he was going for. Unfortunately, this disconnect causes some serious tone issues (the patented 70s downer ending sticks out the most) and ends up making the audience have to latch onto the moments rather than the entire film.
Does that make sense? Probably not, but I’m sticking with it.
If one were to just focus on the main plot of the film (a group of ex-cons getting back together to repeat the one heist that went wrong), then you’d probably have a good time. Eastwood, Kennedy, Bridges and Geoffrey Lewis have some solid chemistry and they make for a entertaining Eastwood’s Four. And the heist itself is actually pretty interesting. Not too many movies set up an entire scheme only to reveal that the way they are getting into the safe is not with some hi-tech gadgets or expert safecracking ability, but rather a giant anti-tank gun.
However, the heist is really the most standard part of the movie and if you were to just watch it for that, you’d be missing out on all the great stuff lurking on the edges of it. For one thing, Jeff Bridges. Yeah, now we all recognize that the man is one of the greatest actors working today (for about a month now, he’s had two movie in the top three at the box office). However, back in 1974, he was mostly known for being actor Lloyd Bridges (AIRPLANE) son and for having been in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Since SHOW, he’d mostly mulled about in smaller roles in films like FAT CITY and THE LAST AMERICAN HERO and unseen ones like his work in BAD COMPANY. He wasn’t slouching, he was just not quite the A-lister he is today.
Then THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT happened. Don’t get me wrong, this is a light film. Very light. Almost too light. This flick isn’t meant to be anything more than simple entertainment and it succeeds at being just that. But somehow, someway, Bridges managed to steal the entire movie away from the likes of Eastwood and Kennedy. And not only does he steal the movie, he does so effortlessly.
So effortlessly that he earned an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor for his work here. His second nod, to be exact. His first was a Best Supporting Actor nod for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW in 1971 and he lost to Ben Johnson. Unfortunately, Bridges lost again for his work in LIGHTFOOT to, get this, Robert DeNiro in THE GODFATHER PART II. While I might argue that he was robbed back in ‘71, I’ve got to admit that DeNiro deserved it for playing the younger version of Vito Corleone. That's a performance that would win Best Supporting Actor pretty much any year.
Man, I’m all over the map with this review. Must be the fact that I’m running on very little sleep and I’m rocking a massive headache. Guess I should mention that Jeff finally won an Oscar (for Best Actor) in 2009 for his work on CRAZY HEART. Good performance, okay movie, I feel that maybe the Academy was giving him the award as more of “lifetime achievement” thing rather than his performance. Just my opinion and let’s loop back around to the picture at hand.
Long story short on Bridges in LIGHTFOOT, his work here is the genesis of what has become the Bridges archetype. You love The Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI? This is where he started. Yeah, it may not be the same character, but it is sort-of the same character. Bridges’ Lightfoot is The Dude younger with a dash of Kevin Flynn lurking around in there too. It’s a wild performance, one that is most certainly better than the movie that it is featured in.
Not that the movie is bad, just that Bridges is pretty much the best thing about it. Him and the moments. Remember those moments I mentioned earlier? Well, they’ll be what you really carry away from this flick. Whether it be Bill McKinney attempting to execute an entire trunkload of bunnies using a shotgun, the Station Attendant ranting about the economy and how a buffalo nickel could bring the whole thing down or Bridges in drag (yes, you read that right), THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT works better as a series of quirky vignettes rather than a true blue heist pic.
Oh, and Eastwood ain’t half bad here. The opening scene with him as a preacher is fun and it’s nice to see him playing with his tough guy image by having a minor bromance with Bridges. Which brings me to the subtext. Anyone who watches the movie will notice a couple of things right off the bat. Lightfoot really likes Thunderbolt. Dude actually tells him this almost immediately and gets upset when Thunderbolt attempts to leave at one point. Oh, and I should mention that Eastwood’s character is called “Thunderbolt” because of the anti-tank gun method of robbing banks. Just to be clear.
Eastwood and Bridges have an easy rapport and even though they barely know each other, the two stick together to the very end. Even in the last scene of the movie (which I won’t spoil), it appears that Thunderbolt has warmed up to his young partner and even gives him a short-lived peace offering. Call it what you will, but I’d definitely classify it as a bromance.
Eastwood and Bridges in a bank heist bromance? I’m very glad that I don’t write loglines for movies, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have a job.
IS IT WORTH DIGGING UP?: Certainly. While the overall plot is pretty scattershot, the moments contained herein are well worth seeing. Eastwood and Bridges make for a good buddy duo, Kennedy is appropriately menacing, Lewis has some good moments and there’s even a couple of cameos by Gary Busey and Catherine Bach (AKA Daisy Duke!).
Plus, as a bonus, this pre-bloat Cimino. You’d never guess that the man who brought the world such overblown epics as THE DEER HUNTER, HEAVEN’S GATE, YEAR OF THE DRAGON and THE SILICIAN would’ve kicked off his career with a simple Clint Eastwood road pic, but he did. I know that HUNTER tends to get the accolades and I’ve got a soft spot for DRAGON, but I feel that THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is Cimino’s best work visually. Story-wise, this flick suffers from the same issues that all Cimino’s work does: Too many ideas and a vision that isn’t cohesive enough to hold them all together.
That having been said, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is definitely worth digging up if you see it cheap somewhere or if it pops up on cable or Netflix. Don’t spend fifty clams on it, though. This being Eastwood and Bridges, I’m positive that somebody will re-issue this with a better transfer and maybe some bonus features sometime in the near future.