Oh boy I've got a good MOVIE DIARY 2018 for you this week! Big time cartoonist Dustin Harbin is here to talk about a movie I've never heard of, but now really want to track down. Dustin's DIARY COMICS are among my favorites, he's funny and insightful and unafraid to confront himself, all things I Iove to see in art and storytelling, and I'd wager you'd love that too. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram for maximum Dustin Harbin content!
Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: DUSTIN HARBIN
I’ve always thought of Thunderbolt & Lightfoot as one of my favorite movies, even though I’ve only seen it once. And that was during high school, which for me was over 25 years ago (I am an Old). Even so, there are a number of scenes that have stuck with me all that time, and which I’ve regularly (and poorly, I now know) recounted to people unlucky enough to mention Jeff Bridges in my presence. I think I saw the movie in my mom’s sewing room, on the little teeny color tv she would watch while she did ironing or sorted her coupons. It’s a rude way to watch a mid-70s road movie shot in Big Sky Country, but how was I to know I would one day think of it as one of my favorite movies ever? In 1990 my favorite movie was probably Princess Bride or Lethal Weapon or Good Morning, Vietnam, which were the only 3 movies we owned on VHS, all of which were screening copies given to my dad by an aunt who worked in a video store, presumably in 1987. My taste was governed by what I had access to.
The thing is, that was the only time I really had access to Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, on that little color tv on a Saturday afternoon as the Movie Of The Week, or whatever the Saturday afternoon movie is called. When I was older and starting buying stuff I liked, there was no Thunderbolt & Lightfoot to be found. Even today, it’s not available on DVD, nor Blu Ray, nor streaming via any of the major subscription sites. Which is weird because it’s the very first movie by Michael Cimino—not only that, but written and directed by Cimino—whose next movie was The Deer Hunter. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot was his first, and stars Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, and George Kennedy—there are movies of much flimsier pedigree in The Criterion Collection, let me tell you. But you can rent or buy an unrestored, somewhat blurry (on today’s high end TVs) digital version on Amazon, and I really wanted to do a guest column on Geoff’s Movie Diary, of which I’m a big fan, so I sat down on another Saturday afternoon and watched Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, 25+ years later.
The short version is that I loved it. Or, maybe, I loved the watching of it, the noticing all the things I’d misremembered, the giant delta between the movie in my mind, stuck there since 17, and the movie I was watching, a boy now nearing his 44th birthday.
Quick synopsis in case you’ve never seen the movie—and if you haven’t I recommend you do so, because I’m about to spoil a lot of the emotional oomph of it:
Clint Eastwood plays a former heist guy, who’s hiding out as a country preacher when members of his old gang find him and chase him across a field, where he meets Jeff Bridges by jumping into the car he’s just stolen. George Kennedy, never not gnashing his teeth, follows them and eventually catches and nearly kills them, thinking Eastwood stole the take from their last job. Eventually they team up on a New Heist, after which Kennedy betrays them and kicks Jeff Bridges in the head enough to cause brain damage. The movie ends with Bridges slowly and cheerfully dying as he and Eastwood drive across Montana.
When I was 17 there was obviously nothing cooler than Clint Eastwood, including Martin Riggs, Adrian Cronauer, or The Dread Pirate Roberts. I never saw any of the Dirty Harry movies, but would eat up any Western he was in. Clint Eastwood is shaped like a more muscley version of my dad, a tall, rangy, leathery, laconic fellow that was never quite sure what to make of me. So a movie where the more mature and taciturn Eastwood finds himself having to handle a puckish Jeff Bridges (in his maybe 3rd or 4th movie role)—and who George Kennedy has a giant murder boner for the whole movie—felt tailor-made for me. Plus: a heist movie. Plus: corny mid-70s unnecessary nudity and near nudity; plus: Jeff Bridges dressing in drag for the big scene; plus: Clint uses a 20mm cannon to blow a hole in the vault wall, etc. etc. Impossible not to watch, for a teenage boy sitting for some reason in his mom’s sewing room on a Saturday afternoon.
But throughout my adulthood the scene that I would remember the most was the last scene, where Jeff Bridges, his brain sputtering and glitching after being kicked nearly to death by teeth-gnashing George Kennedy, breaks down in fits and starts, like the Tin Man running out of oil, all in the last ten minutes of the film. After the big climax of the heist itself and the ensuing high-speed chase, which ends with Kennedy and fellow heister Eddie Goody (played by uber 70s character actor Geoffrey Lewis) dead and Eastwood and a dazed Jeff Bridges limping off into the darkness, the title characters find themselves back at square one, except now Jeff Bridges is starting to slur his words and fall occasionally. And then, wouldn’t you believe, Clint Eastwood (the titular Thunderbolt, due to his use of cannons to open vaults) happens to literally walk up on the hiding spot of the original heist they’d been looking for—and which George Kennedy thought he’d been cheated out of—in a staggeringly convenient deus ex machina moment. Like, “oh look over there, is that that place I was telling you about earlier, which this ride we hitched has dropped us off in front of? Cool.” Cut to Thunderbolt driving off a car lot in a brand new white Cadillac convertible, which his good buddy Lightfoot has always dreamed of buying. He picks up a very unsteady Lightfoot on the side of the road and they zoom off into Big Sky Country, where minutes later Jeff Bridges dies with a grin on his face. “You alright kid? You don’t look so good—“ “I believe you’re right!”
In my memory, carried from 1990 or so all the way to last Saturday, there’s a long, lilting scene of the two of them driving down the highway in the convertible. Clint Eastwood is behind the wheel, confident and summery in his high-collared shirt, and Jeff Bridges is lolling in the passenger seat, smiling lopsidedly. It was such an… unmanly scene to me as a kid. And very counter to my understanding of how these manly movies work, where at the end the protagonist stands atop a pile of corpses and lights his cheroot while grunting out some last witticism as the credits roll, a la For A Few Dollars More. But Thunderbolt & Lightfoot seems like a movie filled with boys being boys, arguing, playing tricks, driving around with a trunk full of rabbits (crazy scene), telling little boys to “go fuck a duck” (another crazy scene), and occasionally murdering each other… for nothing. The climax of the movie comes and goes and no one has learned, no revenge has been taken, the plot hasn’t been advanced much at all, except for a brief moment when the characters attain and then lose their goal.
But then the anticlimax, and the scene of Jeff Bridges lolling in the passenger seat, which is actually just a single short shot, just one instant where his face is in view, dragged out in my memory to the most important image of the movie. Clint Eastwood stumbles on the schoolhouse where an old heist’s loot has been hidden all along, and right at their moment of surprise victory Jeff Bridges cheerfully dies, leaving poor Thunderbolt to drive his corpse down a long highway into the credits, carrying half a million dollars and a dead, smiling friend. It’s like Michael Cimino stuck a little haiku on the end of a big dumb, weirdly sprawling movie—there are a million scenes that do nothing for the story except give the characters something to react to (“hey kid, go fuck a duck”)—as if to say “here, this is what this was about all along.” I don’t know if it was on purpose or not—I haven’t seen Deer Hunter or Heaven’s Gate or any of the other terrible-looking movies that followed them—but in our current era of reexamining masculinity and its useless, toxic, self-important thrashing around, the ending of Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is a startling moment of truth at the end of another buddy/road/heist movie. Jeff Bridges of course went on to excel at just these kinds of off-kilter takes on standard masculine characters, but Eastwood doubled down through the rest of the 70s, becoming an unironic caricature of himself as an actor.
Anyway, I’m talking too much about stuff I really don’t know much about. What I can say with authority, as someone who rarely just sits down and watches a movie on a Saturday afternoon anymore, unless it’s one dumb enough that I can work while it’s on, is that, 25 years later, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot reigns supreme as a perfect Saturday Afternoon Movie Of The Week, sprawling and weird, filled with character actors and 70’s strangeness (Catherine Bach and Gary Busey are in the top billing, neither of which have more than 3 minutes of screen time), and with a coda that makes you unslump on the couch, and which will stay with you for a quarter-century or more. Seek it out if you can, if it doesn’t soon receive the Big Remaster Release Treatment.
Dustin Harbin is a cartoonist from North Carolina. He was born in 1974, just like Thunderbolt & Lightfoot.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
I’d been hearing over and over again about how this movie actually rules, and you know what, now I can be one of those people who earnestly looks you in your eyes at a party and says, “You know what, your talking about Anne Hathaway reminded me that The Devil Wears Prada is a really good movie. Have you seen it? No? You should definitely check it out, you would like it. And I know you were just talking about how Anne Hathaway is kind of a try-hard or whatever, but this movie really plays to her strengths, she’s good in it. Plus Emily Blunt! Emily Blunt is so good in The Devil Wears Prada and it makes you wonder why they don’t let Emily Blunt play a cartoonishly snooty British asshole more often. Every single line she has is so cutting and condescending, I can’t believe you haven’t seen that movie, you love that stuff! It’s really a shame that they keep casting her as these humorless characters. Anyway, Meryl Streep is in it too, and she’s making such a show of giving an understated performance. It’s fine, she’s fine, you should watch it. Oh also Stanley Tucci is in it! Stanley Tucci!”
Were people upset about how it ends? I feel like I’ve heard people being salty about how she leaves her very cool job with the fashion magazine because she sees what it’s doing to Miranda then she decides to go back to dating her boyfriend? Wow, sidenote: Can you believe there was ever a time where Adrian Grenier would have been invited to be in the same movie as Anne Hathaway? Anyway, if you’ll allow me to weigh in twelve years later, I think it’s fine she left her job! What Miranda did to Nigel was fucked up and a huge red flag! Work-life balance is important! People literally fought and died so that you could not have to talk to your boss on the weekend! She didn’t even really like her job that much! On the other hand though, her friends were being very shitty in that one scene where they play keep away with her phone! What a bunch of dipshits! She just gave all of you a bunch of gifts from her work and you’re gonna act like that and play around with your friend’s job?? Fuck outta here! Grow up! Also, I’m now realizing that maybe the work/life balance argument doesn’t hold water as it ends with her getting hired at some newspaper or whatever, and we all know that if there’s one thing that dogged journalists in the movies love and respect it’s work/life boundaries. Anyway! It’s fine! I think she made the right move and I’m glad she made all those influential professional contacts! Maybe she can use them as confidential sources in her eventual exposé on the fashion industry’s problematic areas! Or at least turn it into a gossipy tell-all book deal! She’ll be fine! Her dad still helps her out with rent!
The One (2001)
The One has a totally out there premise, and it rules because it’s really just going for it unselfconsciously. Jet Li is from a world where they have technology to access alternate universes, and he uses that technology to find and kill other versions of himself to make himself more powerful while avoiding his pursuers, alternate universe cops Delroy Lindo and Jason Statham. Great. It’s also a very post-The Matrix movie, very clearly in love with the idea of slowing down time so that you see objects slowly whipping by as Jet Li casually dodges them. Typically the slowed down objects are the bodies of cops that Jet Li has been flinging around with his super strength.
There’s this one bit in the movie that I think really captures the vibe. A judge is reading off a list of Jet Li’s victims, and their faces scroll by on a giant screen. All of them, of course, are Jet Li, but each one is wearing a stupid wig to show that they’re from different universes. Like, beyond the sheer comedy of imagining an alternate universe where Jet Li has bad dreadlocks, I think it perfectly captures the idea that this movie is totally at ease with being goofy sci-fi action movie. The One never feels the need to throw in some heavy handed message about living in our times, or worse, to make some sort of self aware quips about the genre. It’s fine with its rock solid premise of “What if Jet Li fought… JET LI??”
Awesome starting point aside, I do have to say that I felt the action was lacking for me. There’s just too much CGI shit going on, and I know it’s a movie that’s still riding the high of bullet time and wire fighting being popular so it really can’t help itself, but honestly it’d be enough to just have Jet Li beating up a bunch of cops. The effects haven’t aged well either so it gets distracting. All I want to do is watch Jet Li kick in this cop’s teeth but there’s all this slow motion shit going on and it’s like yeah cool it looks a whole lot like when you did that slow motion shit last fight scene. Maybe it would have worked better if the effects were used a bit more judiciously? Like, really save them for moments of impact. Jet Li beating up normal dudes in a fight is already like watching a superhuman anyway, so save it for when he’s finally getting down to the main Jet Li vs Jet Li event! I don’t know! It’s still fun and I’m able to appreciate the things I didn’t like about it as products of its time so whatever.
I loved the ending too! Everyone gets what they want! Good Jet Li gets sent to an alternate universe where his wife Carla Gugino is still alive and everyone recycles, Jason Statham gets to be right, and Bad Jet Li gets sent to a prison planet where he gets to beat the shit out of everyone forever!
I think this is the first documentary that I’ve covered on MOVIE DIARY 2018? Is that possible? Maybe, my track record with documentaries is not great, if I’m being honest with you. Not that I don’t like documentaries, I just never really seek them out. Or if there is one that sounds interesting to me, it still kind of falls lower on my priority list. As longtime MOVIE DIARY 2018 readers will know, I tend to find myself watching easy low to middle brow garbage.
But enough about me! This isn’t a spon-con backed personal essay! This is MOVIE DIARY 2018! Let’s talk about this cat movie! Kedi follows a bunch of stray cats in Istanbul, and explores their different personalities as explained by the people in town who help care for them. There’s some truth to what everyone is projecting onto these cats, but the cats also act as reflections of how these people see themselves and the world. And maybe that’s the real benefit of caring for an animal. They can’t speak to you, so you get to project your own hopes and fears and desires onto a cat. Caring for an animal is a way for these people to contemplate their own lives and their own place in the world. There are a lot of great lines in Kedi about how if you can’t care for animals you can’t care for others, or how cats are the only animals that know that humans aren’t god, and it’s all very moving, but the core of this movie is seeing how all of these cats have affected the lives of their caretakers. Kedi does this interesting thing where all the featured cats have names and personalities ascribed to them, but none of the humans that talk about them are named, sort of a way to show that these cats are individuals and humans are just an adoring collective. In a way it seems like these people need the cats more than the cats need the people, but I don’t know, that’s also kind of bullshit because the cats need someone to feed them out on these streets. It’s more like the people and cats depend on each other for different things. The people and the cats are connected to each other just like everything in this world is connected to everything else. It all seems kind of obvious and corny when I’m typing it all out, but we’re all part of one big ecosystem, maaaaan.