Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 4K UHD Review: Cimino Rising

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is of note for two reasons.

The first is that it was the directorial debut of Michael Cimino. He was one of the most notorious movie brats of the ‘70s. After his masterpiece, The Deer Hunter (1978), became a critical and commercial smash that won big at the Oscars, he helmed Heaven’s Gate (1980). Gate was a fascinating folly of a Western that most critics loathed. The movie flopped, forcing United Artists to write off a $44,000,000 loss. Cimino’s legend grew, but his career never rebounded.

The second reason is Jeff Bridges. He, of course, is one of our great American actors. Bridges did cool shit in the ‘70s, a lot of secondary parts; and his second fiddle to Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot steals the picture. The Academy Awards nominated him for Best Supporting Actor.

As for the movie itself, it’s a combination road movie and rich character piece that masquerades as a heist film. (It’s a modern Western, too.) The ‘70s were full of such movies. (Don’t hold me to that! This is more of a personal impression.)

Here, Eastwood plays Thunderbolt, a drifter and former thief. As Lightfoot, Bridges is a younger, rambunctious drifter with a stolen car. (Something about the way Bridges plays him suggests he might be on the spectrum.) Lightfoot picks up Thunderbolt’s more laconic war vet, and the two of them bond. Thunderbolt’s checkered past, though, catches up with him, as he forges an uneasy alliance with two money-hungry goons he used to do bank jobs with, Red Leary (George Kennedy) and Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis). They decide to rob the Montana Armored Depository; but disaster looms, poised to sabotage everyone’s efforts.

Cimino, who also wrote the script, achieves an amusing yet pensive tone. Already you can see his future work rear its head. Here, with cinematographer Frank Stanley shooting Montana landscapes in Scope to impressive effect, it’s clear Cimino is keen on a certain look—with the characters as mere figures overwhelmed by/in thrall to the vastness and natural beauty of their environs. You can feel him reach for something.

As it stands, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot nearly gets away from him. It’s a small movie with solemnity in the margins—with an epic, bittersweet vision on the brain. Little bursts of melancholy, especially the end, give it a lingering finish.

The Kino Lorber 4K UHD release is a brand new HDR/Dolby Vision master, a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. I’ve no complaints about it. This is a well-crafted film, and Kino Lorber does it proud. Special features include audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton; a featurette with Cimino; radio and TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.

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Jack Cormack

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