Monday, January 27, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot"

Clint Eastwood planned to direct "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" himself, but then he met Michael Cimino, the young screenwriter who had written the script for "Magnum Force," the second Dirty Harry movie and a big hit.

Road pictures and Eastwood were both hot commodities in the early 1970s, and Cimino had been commissioned by agent Stan Kamen to do a script on spec with the squinty star in mind.

Eastwood, who'd already directed three movies himself by then, decided to let Cimino have his shot, leading to his first feature film as a director. His second movie behind the camera was "The Deer Hunter," winning him a pair of Oscars by the age of 40. His next was "Heaven's Gate," which ended his brief tenure as an A-list filmmaker. He made four more movies, none of them consequential.

I'd been meaning to see this buddy crime caper for years, and came away a teeny bit disappointed. It's now out in a handsome Blu-ray edition that's well worth a look.

It's a fine movie, and the screen relationship between Eastwood and Jeff Bridges is just as lovely and spirited as I'd hoped. Or at least it starts out promising.

Eastwood is Thunderbolt, an expert in breaking into banks vaults using a 20mm cannon, hence the nickname. As the story opens he's been hiding out as a preacher in a tiny unnamed town in Big Sky country.

Bridges is Lightfoot, a young hotshot car thief/rapscallion, who wandered off on his own as a youth and never stopped moving. He's repeatedly referred to as a hippie, though his clothing and hair is actually closer to Tony Manero from "Saturday Night Fever." He steals, has a good time with women and booze until the money runs out, then repeats the cycle.

Somehow these opposing personalities just click. Thunderbolt is an aging Korean War vet whose body is crisscrossed with scars, including a badly burned foot that requires a walking brace. He keeps to himself and speaks only when necessary, won't run from a fight but doesn't seek one out, either. Lightfoot is a gadly and gadabout who loves to laugh and avoid conflict whenever possible.

They meet when Thunderbolt literally jumps into the hot rod Lightfoot has just stolen while being shot at by a former member of his bank robbing gang. They pulled off a big job at the Montana Armory a couple of years earlier, and events transpired that the others mistakenly think Thunderbolt kept all the loot for himself.

(They never seem to question why 1) if Thunderbolt had the money he'd pretend to be a poor podunk pastor instead of living the high life behind guarded walls, and 2) they should just just kill him instead of trying to get the money back.)

Lightfoot almost immediately suggests they become friends and pull off some jobs together. Thunderbolt enjoys the younger man's innocence and pep. It's the start of a great Butch/Sundance type of partnership, and I looked forward to accompanying them on their bromance journey.

Unfortunately, the duo becomes a quartet and the movie morphs into a fairly straightforward heist flick, as they plan the job and then watch everything blow up in their faces.

I'm sort of astonished that "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" is often described as a comedy. Certainly there are hijinx and laugh-out-loud moments. But it's also a movie with sadness and anger at its core.

The latter is personified in Red Leary, a thoroughly nasty piece of work played by George Kennedy. He's the one who wants to assassinate Thunderbolt for pure sake of revenge. They were friends from back in Korea, and each man claims the other saved his life.

At one point Red is asked why he's willing to sacrifice everything instead of just letting go and living his own life, and he responds that because he was (he thought) betrayed by a friend, no other choice was possible. If a stranger did him wrong, he'd probably let it slide if there was no benefit in pursuing retribution.

Red and Thunderbolt hash out their differences in a fistfight, then resolve to rejoin forces along with Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), their submissive wheel man. Lightfoot replaces Dunlop (Roy Jensen), the electronics expert who tried to kill Thunderbolt in the opening sequence and got busted up for his trouble.

It seems the one-room schoolhouse where Thunderbolt and the deceased gang leader stashed the loot was torn down and replaced with a modern building, meaning they have nothing to show for the biggest score of their lives. It's Lightfoot who suggests they pull the same job all over again using the same M.O.

Red takes an instant dislike to Lightfoot, egged on by the latter's teasing and devil-may-care attitude, and threatens repeatedly to do him in when the job is over.

At this point the movie wandered away from me, as the men take jobs in town so they can build a stake while planning the robbery. A few notable actors make appearances here including Gary Busey, Vic Tayback, Jack Dodson, Dub Taylor and "dem teef" background player Burton Gilliam. Catherine Bach turns up as a romantic fling for Lightfoot in a pre-"Dukes of Hazzard" role.

The fatal flaw that trips up the execution of the heist is sneaking into a drive-in movie theater near the armory with Goody and Red hiding in the trunk. The manager spots Red's shirttail hanging out the back and thinks extra people are sneaking in without tickets, setting off the commotion that puts the cops on their tail.

For veteran cons you'd think they'd instead try to get away from the scene of the crime as fast as they can. Or just have Goody and Red sit up front and buy two more tickets. But maybe it worked last time, so they're slaves to the tried-and-true.

"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" is a notable car movie. Lightfoot repeatedly "acquires" new vehicles to throw people off their trail, so the movie has a hefty listing on the Internet Movie Cars Database. Dunlop rolls up in a black 1959 Cadillac, a model I'm well acquainted with, and things go from there.

At various points the boys drive a '73 Buick Riviera as well as a Pontiac Firebird and a Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado, both of the same year.

In the film's looniest sequence, the pair are hitchhiking and get picked up by a madman driving a 1973 Plymouth Fury that has been jacked up with racing tires, who immediately careens around the road like a stuntman and intentionally rolls the car over. He then springs the trunk revealing that it is filled to the brim with white rabbits. He's played by Bill McKinney, forever the "squeal like a pig" hillbilly from "Deliverance."

It's a fun bit, but it's bizarreness for its own sake.

The most memorable car of the story is Goody's slate gray 1951 Mercury Coupe, which we suspect has been souped up by the way it keeps up with all the modern cars. It gets put through all sorts of paces, including jumps off cliffs and smashing into multiple police cars during the last desperate chase scene.

The film ends on a major downer note, with everyone in the gang dead but Thunderbolt. Red made good on his promise, repeatedly kicking Lightfoot in the head to cause fatal brain damage. Goody gets shot through the trunk lid and Red is mauled by a guard dog at the store he crashes into, ironically the same place he'd been working as a janitor for his cover job.

The injured Lightfoot and Thunderbolt muddle along for awhile, with the young man growing increasingly dizzy and his speech slurred. They stumble upon the one-room schoolhouse, which had been moved to an interstate rest stop historical display, and recover the half-million from the first heist.

Thunderbolt rides off into the sunset, his friend and partner dead and all the threats against him dissolved. What sort of life lies before him? The movie offers only stubborn ambiguity and the obligatory sad ballad for the soundtrack.

"You know something? I don't think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero," Lightfoot opines, right before slumping over dead.

"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" accomplished less than it could. There's a great movie in there, one where Red is a peripheral villain and the duo arrives at their denouement all on their own, having passed through the fire and come out changed men.

Nothing ruins a good buddy movie like interlopers.

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