The ‘70s were a great time for movies. It was a time when the studio system was in ruins and a group of maverick filmmakers rose-up from the crumbled remains and delivered a run of films that changed the course of cinema forever. One of these filmmakers was Michael Cimino, who made his feature directing debut with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot before moving on to direct the much lauded Oscar-winner The Deer Hunter, before bringing down a studio with Heaven’s Gate.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a mix of buddy road movie and a crime caper starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. Eastwood and Bridges share great chemistry, the latter’s laid-back charisma goes well with the former’s pent-up tough guy act. They shouldn’t really work as a pairing but opposites attract and Bridges’ lightens Eastwood’s onscreen persona, giving him a shine that tends to be missing from most of his work. They are joined by another odd buddy pairing, character acting stalwarts George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis as two bumbling criminals who are hot on Eastwood’s tail.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot presumably started-off as a standard Clint Eastwood vehicle, but it became something else under Cimino’s direction. Visually, it’s more impressive than much of Eastwood’s ‘70s output (looking good on Blu-ray), giving the somewhat generic tale a touch of class that it otherwise may have been lacking. The success of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot led to The Deer Hunter and the success of that film led to the director being given carte blanche to helm Heaven’s Gate, the $44 million western that almost destroyed United Artists. It’s a shame that Cimino’s career never recovered from that legendary flop, directing just four films in its wake (the last was 1996’s The Sunchaser).
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot manages to walk the thin line between the auteur driven filmmaking of the 1970s and a Clint Eastwood star vehicle. Eastwood’s style of movie may be more dominant, but Cimino adds a touch of class that moves the film into the realm of the star’s better movies. Much of this success is down to Jeff Bridges in a scene stealing turn that makes the Thunderbolt and Lightfoot an enjoyable fun film.