In the 1980s, film makers were obsessed with technology. Computers were new and exciting (and could seemingly do anything), robots were becoming a reality (they were even being given as birthday presents by prominent boxers to their slovenly brother in laws) and vehicles were suddenly all becoming weapons. Every hero had to have a unique vehicle, something that made them look more macho than they already, obviously, were. One of the first films to work with the concept of a unique hero vehicle was Blue Thunder in which our hero was not macho and nor was he perfect – he was unbalanced and on the verge of losing his mind.
Blue Thunder tells the story of Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter-pilot-officer and troubled Vietnam War veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His field partner is the newly assigned Richard Lymangood (a veryyoung Daniel Stern), who is given the nickname “JAFO” (Just Another Fucking Observer). Murphy and Lymangood are picked to pilot the new army prototype model super-helicopter named Blue Thunder. While piloting Blue Thunder (and utilising the very cool “whisper” stealth mode), Murphy and Lymongood uncover a murderous plot and realise their lives are in danger.
What sets Blue Thunder apart from many other films of the era is the fragile nature of Frank Murphy. He is as far removed from a typical hero as you can imagine. In fact in the orginal script, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and goes on a killing spree in downtown LA. Obviously this was later changed (though the pursuit through the skies of LA was left in). There is also the helipcopter itself. A beautiful design and a boy’s dream in terms of the things it can do. There is a giant machine-gun mounted on the front of the copter, thermal imaging, a high powered microphone and, most cool of all, the aforementioned Whisper Mode. All in all, a very cool looking piece of kit.
The real achievement of Blue Thunder is that it succeeds as a thriller. On the surface it sounds like a poor man’s Airwolf, with a flying gadget bailing our heroes out of trouble over and over, but truth be told there is barely any action until the last twenty minutes of the film. Blue Thunder is a conspiracy thriller, that just happens to feature a cool looking helicopter.
To find out that the film is directed by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, Short Circuit) is no surprise. Badham was the man behind WarGames and Blue Thunder feels like it operates within the same world. You can imagine David Lightman from WarGames being pursued by the military on one side of town while the police chase Frank Murphy on the other. Even the score by Arthur P. Ruenstien is similar, with its mix and match “synth & string” style. There was something exciting about this time period. Man was becoming one with the machine. Technology was starting to be all we hoped it would be. Robots were a reality, the microchip had arrived and computers could talk, to us and to each other.
Co-written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien), the film posesses his trade mark fantastic and glowing dialogue, it also helps that the film has the perfect cast to deliver it. Particular tribute should be paid to Warren Oates (Stripes) for his portrayal as the long suffering and grisled Captain Braddock. Each time he appears on screen he fires out some corking lines and lights up the scene. His character is a fairly clichéd one (by today’s standards) but he makes Braddock highly memorable and hilarious at times. Sadly, Oates passed away before the film was released and the film makers left a fitting tribute to him in the end titles.
Roy Scheider is excellent as Frank Murphy. A complex, myterious man who you never quite get to the bottom of. He checks his sanity with his wrist watch each morning and is constantly troubled by harrowing Vietnam flash backs. One thing that we are sure of is that Murphy is a good helicopter pilot, he even knows where hot naked chicks do yoga in their living rooms with the curtains open. This is a real man. An inspiration to us all.
Kudos must also go to Malcolm McDowell for giving us one of the most annoying villains ever in Colonel Cochrane. His irritating way of pointing a finger gun at you, clicking and saying, “catch ya’ later“, may well be the most annoying thing in cinema. This is great writing and performance as you immedietly hate Cochrane, this is even before it is made clear that he is the bad guy. Schieder’s impersonations of McDowell’s English accent are also very amusing.
All in all Blue Thunder is a fantastic thriller (with a very cool helicopter) that no one seems to know about. This is a massive shame. It was undoubtably a catalyst for all the vehicle based TV shows that followed it. There was also a spin off TV series (I guess an attempt to cash in on Airwolf, Street Hawk, Knight Rider et al) of Blue Thunder, which is probably best (and most kindly) described as disappointing.