Review by Trylon safecracker Ben Schmidt
A preacher (Clint Eastwood) runs through a vast Montana wheat field. Behind him another man in dark glasses gives chase, trying to kill the preacher with a pistol. This goes on for a while until the preacher reaches a road and tries to flag down an approaching car. The car, recently stolen by a drifter (Jeff Bridges) and approaching at an unsafe speed, swerves around the preacher and into the field, right into the man with the pistol. This random and sudden impact dissuades the man with pistol from continuing his pursuit.
As the drifter maneuvers the car back onto the road, the preacher jumps into the window and manages to work his way into the passenger seat. The drifter is amused at what’s just happened. The preacher is anything but. Brought together by screenwriter fate, they drive off into the mountains to begin an adventure together.
(Note: this particular adventure goes on to involve grand theft auto, old angry war buddies, ice cream scooters, betrayal, beers, bank vaults, school(s), the fleeting importance of social security numbers, dressing up in drag, bloodthirsty security dogs, landscaping, nudity and young Gary Busey.)
Our young drifter goes by Lightfoot. I’m not certain we ever find out why. As played by Bridges, he certainly isn’t a good guy. But he’s so dang likable it’s hard to describe him as bad. He even manages to charm Eastwood’s grizzled, hardened, Thunderbolt, so nicknamed (we eventually learn) for having once cracked a safe with the help of a large piece of military firepower. A big-ass gun.
The entire first half of the film takes its time moseying towards this latter revelation. Sure, everywhere these two go someone is trying to kill Thunderbolt. But these attempted assassinations are handled so casually that one begins to get the sense that Thunderbolt has simply accepted people trying to murder him as one of his many daily annoyances. It’s nothing that anyone gets too excited about. You can’t kill Clint Eastwood, so this kind of makes sense.
It’s here that things take a turn. Two new characters are added to the mix and we begin to focus exclusively on the elaborate preparation for a (one last?) big score. Interesting, yes. But this shift in story threatens at times to channel us away from the kooky charm at the heart of this film. A charm anchored by the odd energy Eastwood and Bridges share on screen.
Was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (the film) trying to be kooky? Does any film aspire to be kooky? Is it, instead, off-kilter? Perhaps first-time director Michael Cimino (who would go on to direct The Deer Hunter) was outbalanced by Eastwood’s stature as star? (One who by this point had directed three of his own films?)
Or is the pairing of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (the characters) simply unique? Is it less a buddy/road/caper movie and more a vessel that happened to capture the contradictory intentions of Eastwood and Bridges?
Most likely accidental, this odd alchemy alone makes for great viewing. Take, for instance, the moment where both men wait along the side of the road to hitch a ride. The camera is at ground level, angled up towards an expanse of blue Montana sky. Eastwood in the middle-distance shifts his gaze from one part of the horizon to the next, anxious to move on to bigger and better things.
Bridges though, plops down right at our level, seated as if to meditate. Knees out, pulling his ankles tight, he closes his eyes and settles into the scene, content in soaking up the joy of being alive.
This one moment, like all, doesn’t last. And considering what happens next, trunk cargo and all, this moment almost seems like an afterthought.
But therein lies the lesson to tapping into the mania of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Come for the plot points Iconic Eastwood and Young Bridges bob and weave their way through. But make sure you’re plopped down and present for the points between plot where this funky little monkey of a film truly enjoys coming alive, flaws and Gary Busey and all. — Ben Schmidt
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT screens Friday and Saturday, August 14 and 15 at 7:00 and 9:15, and Sunday, August 16 at 5:00 and 7:15. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.