This week’s Monday pick is the action thriller Blue Thunder (1983) directed by John Badham (Dracula, War Games). The film stars Roy Scheider (Frank Murphy), Malcolm McDowell (Colonel Cochrane), Daniel Stern (Richard Lymangood), Candy Clark (Kate), and in his final film performance, Warren Oates (Captain Jack Braddock).
“Blue Thunder” is the codename given to an advanced new helicopter that is chosen to be deployed over Los Angeles in an attempt to quell public disorder in preparation of the upcoming Olympic games and general crowd control from the air.
Scheider stars as officer Frank Murphy, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who suffers from PTSD due to his combat experiences in Vietnam. Scheider is chosen to fly the five million dollar prototype that he observes at an army proving ground in the California desert. Murphy is impressed with the chopper’s capabilities such as the ability to record a whisper from two thousand feet, search targets by infrared heat signatures, travel by silent “whisper mode”, and level a city block with a six barrel 20 mm electric cannon.
Murphy is considered a borderline psychotic due to his explosive nature and his disregard for procedures. A minor plot point in the film is that Murphy was almost grounded due to a psychiatric evaluation that considered him too high a risk to keep flying. Captain Braddock (Oates) is the commander of the Astro Division, a Los Angeles police helicopter unit which patrols the skies and assists ground units in criminal situations. In the beginning of the film, Murphy is partnered with a new observer Lymangood (Stern) who is also chosen to test the Blue Thunder prototype.
At the proving grounds where Murphy witnesses the awesome abilities of the tactical chopper, Murphy is introduced to his former CO Col. Cochrane (McDowell) who is unpleased with the Fed’s choice of using him as the test pilot. Cochrane and a select group of federal agents and politicians plan to use the experimental chopper as the ultimate surveillance and crowd control weapon.
The action of the film is well paced and the real action doesn’t occur until the last forty or so minutes of the film. After the government bad guys target Lymangood and Murphy’s girlfriend Kate (Clark) Murphy commandeers Blue Thunder and uses it in a confrontation with military fighters and other helicopters over Los Angeles.
The film serves as an allegory due to the fear that many Americans were now starting to feel about having their freedoms infringed upon by the government and that anyone could be the target of surveillance, well before the idea of a Patriot Act was considered. When the film came out in 1983, the world was rapidly approaching Orwell’s 1984 where the premise of “Big Brother” was becoming more a reality. Americans grew to rapidly distrust the government after Watergate, and the beginning of the 1980s showed a resurgence of order in Reagan’s America. The idea of a Blue Thunder weapon could be used to usher in a new era of government intervention in civilian’s privacy.
The film was written by Alien screenwriter Dan O’ Bannon, and Don Jakoby who suggested the idea of “Taxi Driver in a helicopter”. Murphy would be the crazed Vietnam vet who uses the helicopter to hold the city hostage. O’ Bannon used his dislike of the police to craft a story about a lone wolf who battles government greed and corruption instead.
When John Badham was chosen to direct the film, he was coming off the production of Dracula that he was filming in England in 1979. Badham liked the concept of the film and was looking to do a solid action film. Badham’s masterful direction and John A. Alonzo’s cinematography bring the film together perfectly. Alonzo was able to use harnesses for the cameras that were even steadier than the recent steadycam invention, which made shots virtually, jitter free. Alonzo is a true visionary master whose camera work adds so much excitement and tension to the film.
My favorite scenes in the film are the battle sequences between Blue Thunder and two F-16 fighters that try to destroy Murphy because Cochrane and the Feds make Murphy’s fellow officers believe he is responsible for his partner’s death. The two fighters try to use heat seeking missiles in order to destroy the chopper. Murphy’s brilliant flying allows him to outsmart his adversaries, including the diabolical Cochrane who commanders an attack chopper and hunts Murphy down over Los Angeles.
Blue Thunder was a smash hit when it debuted in theaters in May 1983. In its opening weekend, it made over eight million dollars and Columbia Pictures was very happy with the investment it made in the production. When the film came to videocassette in 1984, it made over twenty one million dollars in the U.S. alone.
The film was also well received overseas in Europe and in Asian markets. It spawned a short lived television series starring James Farentino, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith, and a young up and coming actor who went on to join the ranks of Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey. The film also spawned one rip off show Airwolf, a chopper with similar characteristics of Blue Thunder. I always preferred Blue Thunder more.
Blue Thunder is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc through Sony/Columbia Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.