Wacka-doo, snakecharmers, it’s Burl, here to review a picture I’ve long wanted to see but somehow never got around to until now! It’s a Malpaso picture from the 1970s, and you know what that means: Clint! And most of those movies, whether Eastwood directed them or not, have that Malpaso feeling: you watch them and just know that each take is the first or at most the second, and that whether it was directed by Don Siegel, who was Clint’s directing mentor, or James Fargo, whom Clint mentored in turn, or by Clint himself, in each case the same philosophies and work methods were employed! So there’s a sameness to these films, which isn’t unwelcome – in fact it’s comforting! Nevertheless, when you see one that’s clearly operating on its own principals, it’s pretty refreshing, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is just such a film!
Of course we know Eastwood from such pictures as Blood Work and Tarantula, and here he plays a laconic vault cracker-turned-fake-priest known as Thunderbolt, and we meet him at the pulpit just as an angry George Kennedy from Creepshow 2 and Earthquake arrives at the church and tries to shoot him dead! In his frantic escape he hooks up with a young Jeff Bridges, not yet of Starman and King Kong fame, who has just stolen a roadster from a used-car salesman played by none other than Gregory Walcott from Plan 9 from Outer Space! Bridges, of course, is Lightfoot, and soon this pair of sillynames are bombing around picturesque Montana, being buddies and, in their masculine, mid-70s manner, falling in love!
Their first adventure together involves catching a ride from a completely insane driver played by Bill McKinney from Cannonball! Ha ha, this demento keeps a caged badger in the front seat and tears it up on and off the road, and after he’s barrel-rolled the auto it turns out he’s got a trunk full of live bunny rabbits, which he starts blasting at with a shotgun! Soon we get a taste of George Kennedy again, and it turns out that Kennedy is playing Red, an old partner of Thunderbolt’s who believes the craggy longuebönes to have stolen some ill-gotten loot! Red and his confrere Goody, played by Eastwood buddy Geoffrey Lewis, whom we’ll recall from Smile and ‘Salem’s Lot, first do some fisticuffs with and then enter into a foursquare partnership with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in order to once again take out the vault Thunderbolt et al. had robbed the previous time!
So the gang is assembled and the plan is made, but first they all have to get jobs to buy the equipment they need to do the heist! Ha ha, we get all sorts of amusing vignettes featuring famous faces like Gary Busey from Silver Bullet, looking young and handsome; Burton Gilliam from Fletch, playing the sort of grinning good old boy he made his stock-in-trade; Dub Taylor from Creature from Black Lake just being Dub; and Luanne Roberts from Simon, King of the Witches as a stark naked housewife! Lightfoot has an encounter with a motorcycle rider who’s handy with a hammer, played by Karen Lamm from Ants!; and before the heist can be pulled off, the fellow monitoring the security alarms must be taken care of by a drag Lightfoot, and the security fellow turns out to be a chubby, girlie magazine-reading individual played by Cliff Emmich, who played another chubby security officer who gets hit on the head later on in Halloween II!
The picture dwells less on the robbery details than most heist pictures do – perhaps because it’s not centrally a heist story but is organized more around buddy themes! Still, there is the unique aspect that the vault is broken into by means of a 20mm cannon, ha ha, and the use of this tool is what earned Thunderbolt his name! And then of course after the heist it all goes pear-shaped, and the tensions within the group are expressed physically (and boy-arr-dee, how great an actor is George Kennedy!), and we come to realize that a line delivered earlier in the picture (“Ate ‘im?”) was a case of Dramatic Foreshadowing!
Now, this is the first picture from Mr. Michael Cimino, who vaulted into the prestige picture business with his follow-up, The Deer Hunter! This one isn’t a prestige picture though – it’s a genre film with a higher-toned style and an almost defiant insistence on theme and subtext! The idea of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot as unconsummated lovers is not very subtle (although I’m not sure Clint was cognizant of it, Bridges was, definitely), and what it really is, once you factor in the other couple, Red and Goody, is a study in how well an all-male machine, each component having a few teeth missing from their gears, can operate; and the answer is, ha ha, not very well! I found the movie a splendid entertainment, wonderfully photographed and impeccably cast: an unsung gem of the 70s! I give Thunderbolt and Lightfoot three broken cigars!