Roy Scheider is Frank Murphy, an ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot, now serving LAPD. He’s asked to test a new high-tech helicopter called Blue Thunder, an anti-terrorist chopper loaded with state-of-the-art spy technology and heavy artillery; its stealth technology allows it to fly almost undetected and thanks to the advanced listening devices, people can be overheard wherever they are, even in their own bedrooms. The LA police force is preparing for the 1984 Olympics, and Murphy is told that the chopper will only be used for surveillance, but when his old army nemesis Cochran (Malcolm McDowell) pops up, Murphy becomes suspicious about what’s really going on ...
The combat helicopter from the title is a real wow and director John Badham keeps things moving from start to finish, but the story about a subversive action group eliminating political opposition is poorly developed; we learn that there’s a group of conspirators (apparently all-linked to the Military Complex) who want to use the chopper for their private agenda, but we never learn what their exact plans and motivations are. Frank Murphy is presented as a trouble maker with psychological problems and we ask ourselves how on earth a group of conspirators would ever hire such a man to run some tests for them, the more so since they have an ace pilot (Frank’s old army nemesis) in their own ranks.
Made two decades earlier, Blue Thunder could have been a hellova paranoia thriller. Murphy is a hero in the line of Steve McQueen’s tough, low-key police detective from Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968), but in 1983, when the movie was released (1), the Reagan administration was in full swing and Hollywood was recovering from its post-Vietnam trauma action cinema with a series of heroic, patriotic action movies, usually featuring a super hero and propagating a conservative, anti-liberal message. “May we win this time?” Sly Stallone asked in Rambo: First Blood II, when facing a liberal politician. The message of this scene was unambiguous: those who had served in Nam had done the best they could, the politicians back home had stabbed them in the back. Like Rambo, Frank Murphy is a troubled Vietnam veteran and in the original plans his psychological scars were much deeper and the character would go on a rampage (2). Somebody must have realized that it was not the right moment for such a movie.
Reactions to Blue Thunder have always been mixed; one critic wrote: it’s so bad, it must be a Badham movie (3), others were more positive. Personally I think Badham did quite a good job, offering more than enough helicopter action and explosions to lead the attention away from the wacky script. Blue Thunder doesn’t make much sense, but man, have ya’ seen that chopper?
Enjoy your flight.
* (1) Blue Thunder was filmed in 1981 but only released two years later. Warren Oates had died in the meantime.
* (2) It was written in the late Seventies, within a totally different political context. The original draft of the screenplay is available on-line: http://airwing.uplink.com.au/bluethunder/index.cgi?page=8&1979-blue-thunder-original-draft-screenplay
* (3) http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/alex-sandell/