The Best Movie You Never Saw: Blue Thunder
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at BLUE THUNDER.
THE STORY: Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), a helicopter pilot working for the LAPD, is selected to test pilot an experimental government helicopter called “Blue Thunder.” Highly sophisticated, and heavily armed, Murphy discovers the helicopter is being designed for urban use by a group within the government, headed by his old Vietnam nemesis, F.E Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell). Thought to be insane by his LAPD bosses thanks to his troubled history of war-related PTSD, Murphy steals ”Blue Thunder” in an attempt to reveal the murderous conspiracy behind its creation, culminating in a series of spectacular dogfights in skies above downtown Los Angeles.
THE PLAYERS: Director: John Badham (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, WARGAMES, STAKEOUT, BIRD ON A WIRE, THE HARD WAY). Writers: Dan O’Bannon (ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL), Don Jakoby (THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, VAMPIRES). Starring: Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Candy Clark (AMERICAN GRAFFITI), Daniel Stern, & Warren Oates. Score by Arthur B. Rubinstein (STAKEOUT, THE HARD WAY, WARGAMES).
THE HISTORY: During the early eighties, the comic book-style techno-thriller was in-vogue. Usually, these thrillers revolved around lone-wolf cops or military men given access to highly sophisticated weaponized vehicles they used to do battle with the forces of evil (or – in the case of many eighties action movies – communism). On TV, there was “Knight Rider”, on the big-screen, there was the infamous flop MEGAFORCE. Super-helicopters/planes were especially popular, with Clint Eastwood’s bizarre spy/sci-fi thriller FIREFOX featuring him stealing a Russian Jet run by telepathy (???), while on TV there was “Airwolf”. Many believe the latter was actually a rip-off of this week’s subject, BLUE THUNDER.
Unlike many movies featured in this column, BLUE THUNDER was a sizable hit, raking up $42 million in 1983 dollars (equal to $104 million today). That’s not bad considering that two weeks after it opened, a little movie called RETURN OF THE JEDI hit theaters. BLUE THUNDER was so well-received that, in the days before sequels became commonplace, it spawned a rip-off TV show, which was rushed on-to the air only seven months after this hit theaters (around the time it made it to home video) and lasted a whopping eleven episodes. The movie became a modest cult hit on video/cable, and director John Badham went on to hit-after-hit for the rest of the decade, including the same year’s WARGAMES, SHORT CIRCUIT and STAKEOUT, before turning to TV in the mid-nineties after a few flops (including the decent NICK OF TIME starring a young Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken).
Nevertheless, BLUE THUNDER has sunk into a modest kind of obscurity. It’s well-known enough that Sony has reissued it a few times on DVD/Blu-ray, but it’s rarely talked about alongside other popular action movies of the era, maybe due to the lack of a marquee star in the lead. There’s also been some talk of remaking it with drones (not a bad idea as far as these things go), but nothing has come to fruition yet.
WHY IT'S GREAT: BLUE THUNDER is both typical and atypical of its era. In addition to the sleek, high-tech vehicle, the hero’s also a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet, something that was so common in movies back then that the similarly themed FIREFOX had a hero (Clint Eastwood) with the exact same issue. Yet, while many Reagan-era actioners had a somewhat conservative, rah-rah America bent, BLUE THUNDER was anti-authoritarian. Here, the government is seen as a sinister force, with the main conflict being that if the Blue Thunder is mass-produced, citizens may find themselves unwittingly under surveillance, something which – thirty-three years later – has indeed happened although the new watchers don’t need anything as clunky as helicopters.
"The story supposes that some right thing or conservative group in the government decides that it will be a great idea for crowd control in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, to use these helicopters for surveillance, and to arm them, which is a pretty frightening idea...
Unfortunately, the other equipment they want to put aboard is equipment that can look through into your house, see anything that’s alive and be able to record any conversation from five, six, hundred feet up in the air. The ship then becomes a representation of total invasion of privacy, a flying big brother...
In the film, the character I play, Murphy, a Los Angeles helicopter pilot, knows that this is a very evil and unnecessary thing. So he does something about it.” - Roy Scheider - Blue Thunder Online
As Murphy, Roy Scheider plays one of the last of the 80’s everyman heroes, with he-men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone taking over action flicks within a year or two. Scheider is more of a seventies-style lead, in that he uses his brains and wit rather than brawn and doesn’t trust “the man.” Scheider was the king of this type of hero during this time, with this not too far from his part as Chief Brody in JAWS & JAWS 2. Already in his fifties, Scheider brought a rugged, world-weariness to the part that really made Frank Murphy an interesting guy, with a terrific introduction showing him using his high-tech (for the time) digital watch to count-backwards as he tries to calm himself enough to climb into the pilot’s seat of his helicopter. For much of the running time you’re never really sure if Murphy’s up to the task of taking on the government plot behind Blue Thunder, and by the time the credits roll he’s just about eked-out a victory, but at a heavy cost.
Similarly, the villain is atypical of the time, with Malcolm McDowell fairly low-key as Murphy’s rival, F.E Cochran, a government agent who tries to frame Murphy for murder once he starts asking too many questions and later faces-off with him in a spectacular dog-fight in the L.A skies. McDowell’s lower-key performance may have to do with the fact that he’s absolutely terrified of flying, with his grimaces during the final battle being real, as he was so freaked-out about being in a helicopter.
"I was terrified. We started out filming it on the gimbel thing (a rig designed for the purpose) with the crew moving it around. Then, it was easy to look macho and all that, but it's all very different when you're really up there in the air! They had to retake my stuff several times because I was so scared. It gave them a good laugh." "Going under those bridges in the helicopter was simply terrifying. I didn't think we were going to make it. I asked the pilot, 'We are not going to go under it, are we? We don't have enough room under the bridge. I don't know how wide this thing is, and there is just not enough - oh my god! He scraped the paint!' I still get the old pollywoggles in my stomach when I watch that scene. In fact, I'll tell you, I still can't even look at some parts of this movie." Malcolm McDowell - Blue Thunder Online
The supporting cast is good too, with Daniel Stern as JAFO (“Just Another F**king Observer”) Lymangoode, the young, family man partner who – if you know your eighties action movies – won’t be around long past the second act. Candy Clark makes for a spunky love interest for Scheider (it’s interesting that when the movie starts they’re already in a relationship rather than falling in-love as it goes on), while Warren Oates owns every scene as the typical pissed-off Police Captain, although he’s more sympathetic than usual given the trope.
Given the era, the FX are pretty nifty, with lots of real helicopters used, in addition to model work and rear projection. The action scenes are top-notch, although one of the movie’s dumber aspects is that Murphy engages the villains’ right over downtown L.A, with missiles flying into buildings and a (presumably) astronomical body count on the ground. I guess Badham and company thought an air battle over an urban setting would be more exciting – maybe they’re onto something. Apparently Scheider thought this was moronic and fought hard to move the battle out to a less populated area, as that’s what he thought Murphy would do (ever the method actor).
"I would get rid of that Arco Tower scene," he notes. "It seems out of character for Murphy to draw missile fire to it. To my way of thinking, they should have picked a place which was obviously abandoned, where innocent people wouldn't be endangered. - Roy Scheider - Blue Thunder Online
That aside, BLUE THUNDER is pretty damn exciting, with Scheider’s performance grounding the film in a big way, and Badham’s straightforward (some might say workmanlike) direction a far-cry from today’s action directors, who bombard you with carnage. I also really like the super-synthy electronic score by Arthur B. Rubinstein, with Murphy having a cool heroic theme that I’m humming to myself as I write this.
BEST SCENE: One of the reasons BLUE THUNDER works as well as it does is the acting, and I love Scheider’s chemistry with both Warren Oates (who died immediately following production) and Stern as the doomed JAFO. Even this "chewed-out by the captain" scene feels fresh, thanks to Scheider and Oates, with the two suggesting a certain affection for each other. I also love the line, "when walking on eggshells, don't hop."
SEE IT: BLUE THUNDER is widely available on DVD/Blu-ray, itunes, Amazon and Netflix depending on your region (Crackle also offers it from time to time, but not always in its full 2:35:1 aspect ratio).
PARTING SHOT: Having been born in ’81, I probably should have seen BLUE THUNDER as a child, but oddly enough I only caught it as a teenager when it showed on an “oldies” cable channel. Over the years I’ve returned to this one quite a bit, and it remains one of my favorite Scheider vehicles. It’s too bad that despite its box office success, it was his last big theatrical hit, with him following it up with two underrated movies, Peter Hyams’s 2010 (a modest success at the box office) and John Frankenheimer’s 52 PICK-UP (a huge flop – but a great movie). Check this one out!