The helicopter is one of the most important inventions next to the gun and the car when it comes to the action thriller; I mean where would we be without them as they rattle around the sky, lighting things up with spotlights and machine gun fire only to usually explode in fabulous slow motion? And yet while whole movies have been based around other such vehicles such as the automobile, the fighter jet and even the bus, the whirlybird has seldom been the centre of attention when an action movie needs a particular mode of transport to hang a gimmick around.
However, in the interest of fairness, I give to you Blue Thunder, an action thriller from Saturday Night Fever director John Badham and co-writer Dan O’Bannon that gives you all the twirling rotors and nauseating banking you can stomach and more…
Frank Murphy is a talented helicopter pilot for the air support division of the Metropolitan Police Force, but when he isn’t buzzing around the night skies, shinning lights on drug dealers or breaking in excited rookie Richard Lymangood, he’s trying to deal with a nasty case of PTSD caused by that most 80’s of action movie subplots – a bad tour in ‘Nam. While he struggles to reconcile the skeletons on his head in the most throwaway, coolest way possible (he focuses by stopping his stopwatch exactly after a minute with his eyes closed), he’s asked to sit in on a demonstration for a new, prototype attack helicopter nicknamed Blue Thunder that will apparently rewrite the book on urban pacification. Simply put, Blue Thunder is a fucking cherry and turns in an impressive performance of destructive power, but Murphy is disturbed to find out that the pilot is the unbearably smug Colonel F.E. Cochrane and as he’s played by none other than Malcolm McDowell, you can best his initials probably stand for Fucking Evil.
Still, despite a few attempts from Cochrane and his shadowy backers to sabotage Murphy’s mission to get behind the controls of the most lethal surveillance vehicle in creation, both he and Lymangood finally get to give it a spin, but Frank then hits upon the idea to turn Blue Thunder’s vast talents for snooping and discovers a conspiracy that’s been trying to secure the chopper’s use by making sure that crime is in the rise.
However, after being found out (stealth skills aside, it’s still a fucking great helicopter hovering outside your window), both Murphy and Lymangood – not to mention Murphy’s chaotic but loyal girlfriend, Kate – find their lives in great danger unless they can get their evidence to the press, so Frank does the only thing he can: steal Blue Thunder and run interference while the entire police department and Cochrane’s shady conspiracy buddies struggle to bring him down.
There’s plenty of things about Blue Thunder that has been rendered obsolete by the passage of time with the least of it being we’re supposed to be impressed by bleeding edge surveillance equipment that utilizes a VCR, but another thing might actually be the existence of four seasons of rival super-chopper show Airwolf with Jan Michael Vincent (I could never tell the difference when I was a kid), but if you can make it through it’s suprisingly harsh tone (the fate of Daniel Stern’s Lymangood is legitimately upsetting), some Huey sized plot holes and some questionable uses of government equipment to perve over some boobs, then Blue Thunder is actually a genuinely exciting relic that’s seemingly been lost in time.
So let’s address the awkward stuff first and as we’re dealing with the decade where it was acceptable for all heroes to be weirdly horny literally all of the time, a supposedly hilarious scene where our leads hovers over a certain neighbourhood at a certain time in order to watch a shapely woman do some very nude yoga definitely hasn’t aged particularly well. Come to think of it, neither does a moment where they use the experimental urban war machine to scope out a hooker’s cleavage or listen in to a guy shoot his load early as he bangs a side piece, but this sort of creepy malarkey seems to come with the territory – anyway, beyond that is that the movie seems amusingly laboured with possibly one of the most careless conspiracy I’ve ever seen who, despite a couple of lame attempts, seem pretty cool with letting a suspicious Vietnam vet fly their helicopter that’s designed to smoke out and spy on the exact kind of bad guy shit that they’re currently trying to pull off.
Still, bewilderingly thoughtful shadowy villains aside, Badham grasps the admittedly flimsy thriller plot with both hands and turns in a flick that, for a movie about the kind of vehicle usually seen in Saturday morning cartoon shows, Blue Thunder is rousingly gritty as its characters smoke, cuss and spit out tough-guy dialogue that sounds like it was hammered out on an anvil. “Personally, I wouldn’t fly with him for a bull that pissed Jack Daniels” growls one guy as he voices his issues with Murphy while our endlessly sardonic hero himself downplays his traumatic past with a glib, “You know what they say about a second chest wound: it’s God’s way of telling you it’s time to go home.”.
The cast is magnificently weathered with even the youthful Stern looking all of forty, but carrying the film alongside a supremely punchable McDowell and a haggard version of Warren Oats who looks and sounds like his veins are loaded with nictotene and coffee, is the sun kissed, Roy Schieder who brings a surprising but subtle vulnerability to his damaged character despite having the skin tone of a catchers mit. The off-beat characterization continues with Candy Clark’s noticably deranged romantic interest who seeming seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely, but despite the fact that she has no qualms about putting her own child at risk with some Mad Max style driving, she’s refreshingly not kidnap-bait and even is instrumental during the truly insane finale.
However, the real star of the show is obviously Blue Thunder itself and the second we first lay eyes on it as it emerges out of a burning sunrise to the simple denouement, you can tell the Badham is itching to let this bad boy off the chain. And lets it off he does in a truly thrilling final half hour as the movie gives you so much edge of the seat helicopter action as Scheider pilots the title craft through chases, dog fights and bursts of cat and mouse games, you’ll surprised the movie wasn’t called Brown Thunder. As numerous choppers whizz through downtown streets, under bridges, up and over and between buildings, you may be alarmed that the movie doesn’t exactly give much of a shit about collateral damage (at one point Murphy callously leads a heat seeking missile into the warm side of a blatantly populated BBQ Shack), but will have you utterly impresses that the flying crew did all this insanity for real.
While hardly aerodynamic in places, Blue Thunder nevertheless has the thrust and maneuverability to wind it’s way through some script problems to become a white-knuckle ass kicker that’ll put you in a whirl.