Blue Thunder : Special Edition Review

It’s a sad fact that you can pretty much gauge a persons age by their record collection, what functions they can operate on a mobile phone, their affinity with reality television, possibly their wardrobe, perhaps their reading matter or for a more accurate chronological estimation how much affection they have for the film Blue Thunder.

For many my age Blue Thunder was everything. It was simply the coolest piece of hardware we had ever seen on screen. The fact that it looked like an airborne green house with all the aerodynamic grace of large brick, that has recently deployed an airbag did not dissuade us. The fact that in 1983 the trailer for Blue Thunder was rolled out with an obscure little film called The Return of the Jedi did not hurt either.

Nostalgia notwithstanding the plot of Blue Thunder is on the surface a basic formulaic Holywood thriller, high concept before high concept dominated the multiplexes. Roy Scheider plays Frank Murphy a helicopter pilot working as an airborne observer for the Los Angeles police department. Murphy is classic 80’s movie cop, a Vietnam veteran with a penchant for the unpredictable, haunted, burnout and suffering from post traumatic stress. He’s edgy but can still function effectively enough to be our hero in a mainstream action movie.

Murphy is selected from his division to test pilot a new state of the art helicopter, the eponymous Blue Thunder. As well as doubling as an airborne greenhouse Blue Thunder has the ability to access every computer in the country, listen in on conversations, fly virtually silent in whisper mode, look though walls with thermal cameras and most worryingly of all is armed with a 16mm cannon.

However through a seemingly unrelated murder investigation Murphy and his partner Lymangood (Daniel Stern) uncover the true nature and intention for the super helicopter, as a form of airborne riot control. Given the armament of the aircraft and the implications if deployed on a civilian population Murphy and Lymangood seek to expose the conspiracy. However following his partners murder and with the conspiracy rapidly closing in on him Murphy resolves to steal the aircraft, get the evidence to the media and go public. In the process he inevitably finds himself public enemy number one with the resources of an entire city after him. Evading all manor of attack from the air Murphy must escort his girlfriend safely to the media before finally facing his Vietnam nemesis, the original Blue Thunder test pilot, Malcolm McDowell.

Twenty-four years after its initial release and quite frankly against all expectations Blue Thunder has aged very gracefully. It has effortlessly transformed from a teenage joy to a grown ups’ indulgence with considerable ease.

A large part of the films success can be traced to its lead. As one of the most watchable actors of the 70’s and early 80’s Schneider’s’ name attached to any project alone gives it a built-in interest and here again he proved himself to be one of the most underrated leading actors of his generation. He gives what is an Ikea built cliché a weight and intelligence not apparent on the page without resorting to or falling back on acting pyrotechnics. Can you imagine De Niro playing Chief Brody, no of course you can’t. Extremes are far easier propositions for actors to play, naturalism on screen requires craft and Scheider makes it look ridiculously easy.

Elsewhere McDowell excels in a gloriously over the top role that would define the parts he would play for the next decade. At times camp and at others quietly underplayed McDowell’s’ Cochrane makes for an engaging villain and worthy opponent for Scheider.

Behind the camera John Badhams’ main objective here seems to be to build and build and build the tension for well over an hour. We all know the aircraft has to be used in anger at some point, the question is how long. When the tension is released you are not disappointed. Even by today’s standards the set pieces in the last act of the movie are exceptional as Blue Thunder weaves between the buildings of downtown Los Angeles avoiding and attacking opponents at close range. The action is clear, the geography mapped out and the shots beautifully composed, a shot of the jet fighters reflected in Murphy’s’ visor is particularly impressive. Fans of ramped up jump cuts and excessive handheld beware, this is old school and quite beautiful to look at. The last act of the movie simply keeps building and if there is any indulgence in the film then it is here, the police car being shot in half comes to mind, but this is forgivable folly in an otherwise very disciplined movie.
Blue Thunder also adheres strictly to the Roger Corman philosophy, when the monster is dead the film is over. There is no pointless spell it out for you coda, it treats the viewer with respect right up until the end.

Opening a just a few months shy of 1984 Blue Thunders’ Orwellian themes are very obvious and infinitely more relevant today than they were upon initial release. This is a film patently about privacy and technology, its implementation, morality and implications. It is no accident that the film opens with Murphy and his partners’ voyeuristic indulgence, an act not carried out merely by individuals but by police officers and therefore instruments of the state. The film also has very sly references beyond the surveillance aspects of the aircraft. When Malcolm McDowells’ character apathetically calls for assistance for the helicopter downed by Murphy he quips disinterestedly “Somewhere in the Watts area.” The Watts area was the flashpoint of Los Angeles worst ever riot in 1965 and given the plot of the film is a very deliberate reference to the imagined scenario of the movie.

The references made by both Murphy and Cochrane to Vietnam in the film are also not just there for character texture. Blue Thunder is after all quite obviously a military helicopter obligated into a civilian role and it is the contradiction between the two roles that under pins another theme of the movie. In other words if the two roles are confused then like MacArthurism the body entrusted to protect us from outside threats will turn in on itself and the civilians will then become the target.

Okay we’re talking about Blue Thunder and not a meditation on the art of individual freedom, but there is thoughtful subtext here. This is a film that really belongs in the 70’s as opposed to the 80’s and is closer to the Manchurian Candidate or the Parallax View than it is to say Top Gun.

Just look at the technology depicted. For the most part in the 1980’s the portrayal of computers and technology in films bordered on fantasy rather than reality. It was the decade before windows, viruses, the internet, the blue screen of death and the mundane reality of everyday computer use. It was a time when a talking car could effortlessly and sarcastically patronise the Hoff, when a teenage boy (in Badhams own WarGames) could nearly start world war three and the phrase “the computer says” held all the power of Moses latest hill walking anecdote. Very little stayed in the realms of actuality, hell even Rocky had a robot.

Blue Thunders technology however with very little exception has all come to pass. The internet is foreshadowed by the computers use onboard the craft, the thermal camera is in use by every fire brigade, the directional microphones are in use by the police force and even a version of the imaging system for the canon is currently installed in the European Fighter. Regardless of the opening caption of the film very little of this was actually achievable in 1983.

Blue Thunders success though is down to fact that beyond the sheer adolescent joy of the action sequences the film is actually about something. In a post 9/11 world (yes I got this far before mentioning it) themes of privacy, liberty and unchecked police powers are unfortunately not likely to become obsolete any time soon.