The 1970s was the zenith of car-themed cinematic fare. Should you ever inexplicably want to lose an argument in a ruthless and unmitigated fashion, come at this film critic and automotive enthusiast with the notion that any other decade is better. Go on, I dare you.
Every good car movie from the past forty years, such as Baby Driver, Death Proof, or Cannonball Run you throw at me, I’ll hit you back with utterly classic ’70s counterculture fare such as Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, and American Graffiti. Any further argument you make about how culture-affecting a franchise like Fast and the Furious is, I’ll quiet you down with four simple words: Smokey. And. The. Bandit.
I will concede Seventies filmmaking, like that of today, was not immune from derivative films that followed in the wake of a landmark one. Just like Overdrive tried to ride the coattails of the aforementioned Fast films, so did a host of drecky Bandit wannabes.
Nonetheless, even the most insipid of copycat movies usually have a vindicating element to them. In that spirit, we come to the subject of this month’s chapter of Rob’s Car Movie Review. This time we look at a little-known B-grade car movie from the late 70’s called Thunder and Lightning.
Thunder and Lightning was churned out in 1977 by the legendary “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” producer, Roger Corman. It was distributed in the United States through the Twentieth Century Fox Film Company.
The movie was written by William Hjortsberg, who would go on to scribe such notable films as Angel Heart and Legend. It was directed by seasoned television helmer, Corey Allen. David Carradine starred in the film alongside original Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson, Sterling Holloway, and notable character actor, Charles Napier.
Carradine plays Harley Thomas, a consistently grimy and sweaty Florida bootlegger. Aided by his girlfriend, Nancy Sue (Jackson), he tries to stay one step ahead of a bunch of organized crime figures who are attempting to usurp his business. Harley engages the mobsters head on and throws a series of monkey wrenches in their operation by battling them with guns, fists, and his wits.
So as not to leave you in any form of suspense, I’m going to tell you straight up that this is no Apocalypse Now.
Just about every aspect of this film is substandard. The cinematography is so grainy and underexposed that you often can’t tell what is happening. The editing also constantly delivers unintentional jump cuts and continuity errors.
The abominable script tries to capture some of the down home fun of Smokey and the Bandit, but instead taps into every cliché of Southern rednecks you could imagine. There are even characters named Scooter, Jim Bob and Bubba.
The film’s protagonists are underdeveloped to the extent that you can barely tell who is on who’s side. The plot, if you want to call it such, is so cartoonish it draws comparisons in one’s mind to old Tom and Jerry episodes. Except, those were far more entertaining.
Carradine seemingly phones in his performance. Jackson, who one must say looks great, isn’t given much to sink her teeth into. The sole decent performance here is Napier who brings a certain authenticity to his nonetheless hackneyed role of hillbilly hood.
The storytelling is so bad that the film’s most engaging moment consists of an “in joke.” During a fight, Napier’s character tells Carradine’s to “cut out that Kung Fu s–t!” Thunder and Lightning sets a low bar indeed.
As I stated earlier, even a dumpster fire like this can have a mitigating facet to it, though. Thank goodness for us, that element is the movie’s vehicles.
The film’s opening consists of a high speed chase in the swamps of the everglades on airboats. Not only that, but the movie’s entire third act is a series of car chases – thankfully, high speed action is not absent here.
The star of the show is Harley’s steed, an absolute American classic in the form of a 1957 Chevy Bel Air in black with white side-inlays. The car looks aggressive, though not in great shape, with a lift in the rear. It’s featured prominently throughout the film in some great automotive action.
We never get a look under the hood of the Chevy. Hopefully the engine sounds heard in the movie were live recordings and not dubbed in later. If so, I’d suggest that the car was packing the rare, mechanically-fuel injected, Super Turbo Fire 283 cubic-inch V8. It was good for 285 ponies and 290 lb/ft of torque in unmodified form.
Numerous interior shots reveal the car has a column shifter, suggesting that power was being transmitted to the rear via a two-speed Powerglide or a Turboglide tranny.
Another great ride in the movie is a Monza Red, 1969 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray convertible. The car appears only briefly in the film, thus denying us any mechanical detail. It is seen running at very high speed like a C3 should though, until it is utterly destroyed. Sigh…
My personal favorite car in the film though, is a long and lean 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Classic convertible in blue with a white top. I’ve long had an affinity for this rather non-muscly car, as a close family friend had a similar car in the 1970s when I was a kid. I had many a fun top-down ride in it.
There are a variety of cool Dodge police cars on display in the movie for the Mopar freaks out there. My favorite being the ’74 Monacos. I’ve always loved the grilles on those.
If you can manage to get through the first hour of this garbage, you’ll be rewarded with some pretty slick automotive action. I was barely able to make it. In the end, I was glad I did. I recommend taking advantage of the fast-forward button for you, though. I give Thunder and Lightning four-and-a-half out of ten pistons.