The Film: 5/5
Eastwood and Bridges. Dirty Harry and the Dude. Together in the same film under the direction of Michael Cimino for the same studio he would help to bankrupt nearly a decade later with Heaven's Gate. Car chases, fist fights, bank heists, male bonding, men dressing like women, creatively vulgar language, dialogue laced with hard-boiled wit, and some surprisingly effective performances combine to create the majesty that is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, one of the most entertaining action films of the 1970's and one of the original - and definitive - "bromances".
A twist of fate brought together a man of the cloth (Clint Eastwood) fleeing from a would-be assassin and a cocky young drifter (Jeff Bridges) without a care in the world when the younger man nearly runs over the priest with the car he recently stole. The older man eventually becomes the drifter's passenger and the two men, the youngest of which is named Lightfoot, soon forge a friendship as their travels take them into Montana's Big Sky country. Lightfoot's road trip companion reveals himself to be a famous bank robber who once pulled off a elaborate heist by using a 20 millimeter anti-tank gun to blast open a safe, earning him the nickname "Thunderbolt". He made off from the job with a large sum of cash which he then stashed behind the wall of a one-room schoolhouse, but when he and Lightfoot go to retrieve the money they discover the rickety old rural school has been replaced by a larger, modernistic school. Thunderbolt's old partner Red Leary (George Kennedy) and his associate Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) have been violently pursuing the duo because they believe Thunderbolt betrayed them and made off with the loot. Once they realize the truth of the matter the two teams become one and plan to pull off another heist from the same company at Lightfoot's urging. Will the outcome be different this time, or are Thunderbolt and Lightfoot being played for fools by even bigger fools?
During the 1970's it was possible for a film that could appeal to both weekend box office thrill-seekers and audiences in the mood for something naturalistic and honest to get an easy green light from studios. After all, these were the post-Easy Rider years and for most of the decade that followed the New Hollywood was poised to forever dominate and supplant the old guard of the industry. Having previously made his name in Tinseltown by co-writing the screenplays for Silent Running (with Deric Washburn and Steven Bochco) and Magnum Force (with John Milius), Michael Cimino seemed a natural fit to make his directorial debut with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the script for which he wrote based off of a rough idea given to him reportedly by an agent with the William Morris Agency. The man who would one day hammer the final nail into the coffin of auteurist excess run rampant within the gates of the major studios was no slouch when it came to composing eccentric character studies where individuals who might have seemed like escaped lunatics to the square community came off as perfectly normal in the company of their own kind. Thanks to Cimino's smart, shrewd screenplay and his unflappable direction of your average American filmmaker's dream cast there isn't a wasted moment in Thunderbolt, nor does a character exists who doesn't leave their impression on you in some form.
Clint Eastwood had successfully managed to create an image for himself as a new breed silver screen man's man - cool, laconic, and quick with both an amusing quip and a damaging right hook. He had become the John Wayne of the post-Vietnam era where audiences were no longer buying into the cliched definition of matinee idol as an upright paragon of American exceptionalism. Because of Eastwood the Man with No Name (as he was sold to American moviegoers even though he actually had names in all three Dollars movies) and Inspector Harry Callahan served as the templates for the modern action movie hero. But Clint the Squint wasn't about to get pigeon-holed by the very same entertainment industrial complex that had kept him in low-paying small roles and television oaters that would have done precious little for his career until he found stardom in Europe as the star of Sergio Leone's rightly celebrated spaghetti westerns in the 1960's. If he was going to receive star status for headlining a bunch of violent features he fully intended to draw on that status heavily to create a truly innovative legacy for himself.
The first step was making his directorial debut on 1971's well-received thriller Play Misty for Me. The next came a few years when Eastwood decided to break away from his Dirty Harry image to play a more relatable character, but still a outsider who operated his way regardless of the situation, in a substantially lighthearted adventure that might make fans of the same critics and audiences who were quick to label him a right-wing fascist in the wake of the success of the Dirty Harry movies. There is where Thunderbolt and Lightfoot comes into play.
Here Eastwood gets to play a character who isn't a gruff, standoffish loner, but rather a likable and ingratiating guy who's easy to get along with if you don't rub him the wrong way. He may not have a lot of friends but at least he's welcome to having them. It's a rare pleasure to watch Eastwood smile, laugh, and trade smart dialogue with equally talented performers, because usually he serves as the domineering presence in the film. For once he plays the anchor of a very capable ensemble as opposed to carrying the film all by his lonesome with the other actors simply existing in his overpowering presence, and he's really good. Great, even. I would go as far as to say that this is one of Eastwood's best films.
Thunderbolt was an early test of Jeff Bridges' acting abilities and screen presence and he proved even then that he had the chops to be one of cinema's finest actors. Bridges has goofy charm to spare as the extremely good-natured Lightfoot and his interplay with Eastwood is golden. You get the sense from watching the two play off of each other that they could have been great friends in another life, and when Bridges is required to dress in drag when the third act heist fires up he doesn't overplay the routine with lame comedy that would have killed the forward momentum of the plot.
Eastwood and Bridges are matched and often surpassed in the acting game by the legendary professionals George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis as their pursuers and later reluctant partners Leary and Goody. Kennedy in particular makes for a rather genial hardass capable of being your best friend until the mood strikes him to stab you right in the back. Lewis, a frequent on-screen collaborator of Eastwood, plays his part mostly for comic relief, but he also picks certain moments to dial back the levity and remind us why his character is pretty damn good at what he does.
Cimino supports his quarter of principal players with priceless smaller performances from Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazzard) as a lovely lass Lightfoot picks up for the evening, Burton Gilliam (Blazing Saddles) as a boorish co-worker of Thunderbolt's, Dub Taylor (The Wild Bunch) as an opinionated gas station attendant, Bill McKinney (Deliverance) as an unhinged driver Eastwood and Bridges encounter on the road, Gregory Walcott (Plan 9 from Outer Space) as a used car salesman, Vic Tayback (Alice) as a construction company owner who briefly employs Lightfoot, Jack Dodson (The Getaway) as a bank manager, and an impossibly young Gary Busey (credited as "Garey Busey") as one of Lightfoot's co-workers. The director peppers his straightforward narrative with some oddly appropriate comedic touches and a little full frontal female nudity and ratchets up the tension in a thrilling finale that kicks off with a home invasion, proceeds forth into a vault break-in involving the use of a anti-tank gun, and concludes with some well-executed car chases and shootouts. Cimino gets amazing mileage from the authentic, expansive Montana locations and is committed enough of a storyteller to take Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to a logical conclusion that seems perfect befitting of its characters, even if it isn't exactly one that will leave you smiling when the credits roll.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot gets a new high-defintion transfer courtesy of the amazing people at Twilight Time. Remastered in 1080p progressive scan and correctly framed in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the picture quality is definitely many notches above previous VHS and DVD transfers of the film. Print damage is thankfully non-existent and every frame looks to have been cleaned and brightened up as best as possible. The results are fantastic and a treat for anyone with memories of catching pan-and-scan broadcasts of Thunderbolt on television to behold. Grain is kept to a minimum without giving the print the appearance of excessive digital noise reduction. Colors are strong and details have been sharpened to virtual perfection. No complaints.
The single audio option provided for this dual-layered 50 GB Region Free Blu-ray is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track and it proves to be a great fit for Thunderbolt as it was originally mixed and exhibited theatrically with mono sound. The track is solid and robust - though the quieter dialogue scenes can often be difficult to hear without manual volume adjustment - with strong levels on the sound effects and music portions of the overall mix that equally benefit the constantly active shift between conversational scenes and action set-pieces. Any potential trace of audio distortion from existing home video editions of the film has been removed. English subtitles have also been included.
Twilight Time's resident film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo join Lem Dobbs, screenwriter for Dark City and The Limey, for an informative, analytical audio commentary track that offers up ample backstory of the film's production and the participants' own critical perspectives of its thematic elements, among other things. Dee Barton's music score gets an isolated audio track in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. A theatrical trailer (2 minutes), MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (2 minutes), and a catalogue of other titles available from Twilight Time close out the disc-based extras. Included with this Blu-ray is a slim booklet of liner notes written by Kirgo that breaks down the story of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in great detail and discusses why it remains great entertainment after four decades.
As buddy crime road movies go, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a treat. Eastwood and Bridges have unbeatable chemistry and both simultaneously act against type while playing to their mutual strengths as performers and movie stars. Old pros Kennedy and Lewis offer able-bodied support, and writer-director Cimino was clearly working at the peak of his powers as a storyteller from the very beginning of his career in filmmaking. In short, this movie is a stone cold classic from a decade that contained no shortage of the sort. This Blu-ray from Twilight Time, which was limited to 3000 copies and is now sold out, is well worth seeking out if you can pay the absurd prices the vultures on Amazon and Ebay are charging for their used copies.