Clint Eastwood is posing as a preacher in a small Montana town, giving his Sunday sermon. Meanwhile, carefree Jeff Bridges steals a Trans Am off a used car lot and goes for a joyride. Clint’s sermon is interrupted by a hit man who opens fire in the church, chasing Eastwood down through a wheat field, when Bridges comes speeding along, running the killer down. Clint hops in the Trans Am, and the two become fast friends, setting up THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, a wild and wooly tale that’s part crime caper, part character study, and the directorial debut of Michael Cimino.
Clint plays Korean War veteran John Mahoney, a criminal known as “The Thunderbolt” who pulled off a successful half-million dollar armory robbery. His ex-gang members (George Kennedy , Geoffrey Lewis ) think he betrayed them, and are out to kill him, but not before finding out where the loot is hidden. He’s basically a loner, an island unto himself, until he meets up with Bridges’ Lightfoot, an affable goofball who lives outside society’s rules. These two outsiders form a bond as they wander around aimlessly, trying to stay one step ahead of the murderous Red Leary (Kennedy) and his quiet partner Goody (Lewis).
The killers finally catch up with our stars, but things are smoothed over, and the four go to retrieve the money, hidden behind a blackboard in a one-room schoolhouse. But the schoolhouse is gone, apparently torn down by progress, and with it their dreams, until Lightfoot comes up with a brilliant idea: recreate their glorious achievement by heisting the armory again. Red, who detests the young neer-do-well, scoffs at first, but “Thunderbolt” is all in, and the elaborate scheme (complete with Bridges in drag) goes off just as planned, except for one fateful mistake at a local drive-in….
Jeff Bridges deservedly earned his second Oscar nomination as the free-spirited Lightfoot, a man-child who’s a loner like Eastwood’s character. The older “Thunderbolt” takes a shine to Lightfoot’s outrageous attitude and outlook on life, which he finds similar to his own. Bridges really came into his own during these 70’s flicks, and was soon a major star in his own right. George Kennedy is always good playing a mean, nasty dude (as opposed to Bridges as THE Dude!), and Lewis offers comedy relief as the soft-spoken Goody. The cast is full of Familiar Faces from film and TV, including Catherine Bach (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) as a hooker, PLAN 9’s Gregory Walcott as a used car salesman, Alvin Childress (Amos of AMOS’N’ANDY fame) as a janitor, and Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Burton Gilliam, Beth Howland, Roy Jensen, Karen Lamm, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, and Dub Taylor . Rock’n’roll backup singer supreme Claudia Lennear (Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie, etc) has a bit as a sexy secretary.
Eastwood himself was originally scheduled to direct, but instead gave young Michael Cimino a shot at his first feature job. Cimino began his career directing TV commercials, and was co-screenwriter on the sci-fi film SILENT RUNNING and Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY sequel MAGNUM FORCE. His shot framing against the backdrop of Montana’s Big Sky country is picture perfect, and he ably guides the cast of pros through their paces. It’s a good first outing, and led to 1978’s Oscar winner THE DEER HUNTER, copping both Best Picture and Director that year. Unfortunately his follow-up, 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE, became one of Hollywood’s all-time disasters, and tanked big-time at the box office. To be honest, I’ve yet to see it, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s as bad as it’s reputation. I have seen and enjoyed Cimino’s 1985 YEAR OF THE DRAGON, which I feel is underrated and overlooked. But the bombing of HEAVEN’S GATE pretty much ended Michael Cimino’s career as a major filmmaker; he died in 2016, his dreams and the promises of his debut film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and his masterpiece THE DEER HUNTER unfulfilled.