The Films of Michael Cimino
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (August 13/02)
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot doesn't really go anywhere unique or original - when you get right down to it, the film is about a couple of bank robbers - yet the movie is consistently entertaining due mostly to the two central performances. Clint Eastwood stars as Thunderbolt, a retired criminal who's spending his days working as a preacher in a small town. He's unwillingly thrust back into the open when a former partner in crime named Red (played by George Kennedy) opens fire on him during a sermon. While making his escape, he hooks up with a young man named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) and eventually the two learn that they have more in common than they may have initially suspected. Lightfoot convinces Thunderbolt to rob one more bank, with the help of Red and another old associate. The remainder of the film essentially details the gang's planning and execution of the robbery. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was written and directed by Michael Cimino a few years before he would go on to make the infamous bomb Heaven's Gate, and it's completely free of the excess that plagued that film. This is, in its essence, a simple story with interesting characters told in a laid-back fashion. Like most movies produced during the 1970s, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot employs a pace that films today rarely employ (ie it's quite slow). But unlike a good portion of that generation's flicks, the leisurely manner in which the story unfolds suits the movie.
While Eastwood is as good as you'd expect, this is really Bridges' show. As the slightly dimwitted Lightfoot, Bridges steals every scene he's in and his enthusiasm is ultimately infectious. Cimino gives Bridges the time and the room to establish this character, and his chemistry with Eastwood probably inspired a lot of contemporary buddy flicks. The film's only real misstep is in its finale, as its surprising downbeat nature is noticeably incongruous in relation to the rest of the movie. Still, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is an easy going flick, and will no doubt please fans of the two leads.
The Deer Hunter
Overlong and self-indulgent, The Deer Hunter nevertheless comes off as an engaging, sporadically electrifying piece of work that benefits from the inclusion of several undeniably absorbing elements (including the uniformly captivating performances and Vilmos Zsigmond's breathtaking cinematography). The film follows three working-class friends (Robert De Niro's Michael, Christopher Walken's Nick, and John Savage's Steven) as they enlist in the Vietnam war and subsequently encounter increasingly perilous horrors on the battlefield, with the remainder of the movie detailing their individual attempts at adjusting to post-war civilian life. Director Michael Cimino - working from Deric Washburn's screenplay - has infused The Deer Hunter with an evocative, unexpectedly authentic atmosphere that's initially employed to less-than-engrossing effect, as the filmmaker offers up an overlong and hopelessly slow-paced opening hour that's almost oppressive in its repetitiveness (with the seemingly endless wedding reception undoubtedly the most apt example of this). It's not until Cimino shifts gears to the trio's stint in Vietnam that the film first becomes as compelling as one might've expected, and it's ultimately impossible to downplay the effectiveness of the now legendary Russian roulette competition that ensues between the Vietcong and their prisoners (although the tense hunting trip that leads into the war sequences is also quite stirring). The enthralling vibe is enhanced by both the searing performances and Cimino's masterful direction, with the strength of the Vietnam-based scenes effectively carrying the proceedings through its relatively underwhelming post-war stretch. And while there's no denying the power of the movie's affecting conclusion, The Deer Hunter's overall impact is ultimately dulled by the pervading aura of excess that's been hard-wired into it by Cimino.
Year of the Dragon
Desperate Hours (June 29/12)
A fairly pointless remake, Desperate Hours follows three criminals (Mickey Rourke's Michael, Elias Koteas' Wally, and David Morse's Albert) as they decide to lay low by picking a house at random and waiting there for the heat to die down - with the film subsequently (and primarily) dealing the trio's ongoing interactions with the residents of said house (Anthony Hopkins' Tim, Mimi Rogers' Nora, Shawnee Smith's May, and Danny Gerard's Zack). It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why Desperate Hours just doesn't work, as the film boasts a laundry list of appealing elements - including stylish visuals, a strong, seemingly infallible premise, and a roster of appreciatively off-kilter performers. Despite its proliferation of positive attributes, however, the movie is never entirely able to become the tense thriller that director Michael Cimino has clearly intended - with the flat, stagnant atmosphere exacerbated by an ongoing emphasis on extraneous tangents and subplots (eg there's a whole stretch detailing Morse's character's attempts at evading the police). Rourke's charismatic yet intimidating performance and Cimino's captivatingly over-the-top directorial choices are generally strong enough to (partially) compensate for the movie's flaws, and there's little doubt that Desperate Hours, at the very least, comes off as a consistently watchable misfire. (The film could, and should, have been so much better, though.)