Michael Cimino’s having directed helps this critic’s case too, given the odd sexual rumors that tend to enswirl him. When I found out he made this, I could barely believe he did a seventies road movie heist comedy, crime melodrama, whatever you want to call it. The only conceivable way I would have actively sought Thunderbolt and Lightfoot out — and I’ve thought about this — is if I finally watched the 228-minute cut of Heavens Gate and, moved, launched into a complete Cimino viewthrough. Hence my thankfulness for a series like LACMA’s on the golden age of road movies; it also supplied a suitably beaten-up print which, believe you me, is the only way to watch a picture of this class.
Not to say that the film comes to nothing more than third-run-theater type car-chases-and-fistfights entertainment, though it does contain both car chases and fistfights. It follows the partnership of Lightfoot, a young drifter with no discernible background, and Thunderbolt, a retired bank-knocker-over. Right after Lightfoot steals a Firebird from a used car lot, he meets Thunderbolt by inadvertently saving him from a couple of suited assassins who’ve tracked him down at the remote nowheresville church where he’s taken up preaching. The would-be killers, who keep making failed attempts on the heroes’ lives, turn out to be the remnants of Thunderbolt’s old gang. Mistakenly convinced Thunderbolt double-crossed them in their last robbery, they in quick succession learn the truth — he didn’t grab the money and run but hide it in an old schoolhouse — and follow Lightfoot’s suggestion that they all team up for One Last Big Job.
The film ultimately takes on qualities of the standard heist picture — too many of them — but it flaunts enough small weirdnesses that, if it doesn’t transcend the genre, it at least becomes an unusually memorable example of it. Hitchhiking, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot get a ride with a fellow in some sort of lowered black sports car. Seconds — seconds — later, the driver rolls his vehicle completely over, leaps out of it, and opens the trunk to reveal a compartment crammed with live rabbits. He then begins methodically throwing the rabbits out of the trunk and blasting at them with a shotgun. Thunderbolt beats the guy up, and that’s the last we see or hear of him. In the culmination of a squirrely running joke about pistachio ice cream, Thunderbolt’s old partner arch nemesis tells a kid who approaches his ice cream truck — everyone in this ad hoc gang gets day jobs to support their career in robbery — to “fuck a duck.” When Thunderbolt and Lightfoot finally come across that relocated money-filled schoolhouse, Lightfoot wonders aloud why anyone would have bothered transporting it. “History,” grumbles the squinting Thunderbolt. “History, damn it.”
Can we chalk up this slight askewness to Cimino’s influence? I’ve seen too little of his work to say for sure. This being his first project as a director, he presumably didn’t have much influence; history has it that, unsurprisingly, Eastwood effectively became a second director. Some of the aesthetics, especially in the early scene where Thunderbolt’s pursuers chase him across a vast wheat field, scream Cimino’s sensibility. Few of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s elements seem to “belong” together, in the cinematically traditional sense, which must be why I can’t quite label it a minor work, opting instead to call it a work of strong interestingness with major stars (and a director who would become majorly eccentric) in a minor form.