DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Blue Thunder

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Blue Thunder

Blue Thunder (1983) dir. John Badham
Starring: Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Candy Clark, Daniel Stern, Warren Oates


One of the great directors of the 80’s is John Badham, and one of the best action films of that decade is “Blue Thunder”. The title might conjure an impression of a film capitalizing on the 80’s trend of machinery as basis of high concept screenplays, but “Blue Thunder” is NOT Knight Rider, nor “Airwolf”, not even its own lame TV show spin-off. Badham’s film in invisible to its age, an expertly executed actioner with a surprisingly astute social commentary which feels as relevant today.

The perfect everyman star Roy Scheider, plays Frank Murphy, an LAPD pilot in the urban aerial patrol unit. He’s also a Vietnam vet, with latent post-traumatic stress and those annoying recurring ‘Nam flashbacks (I know, it was already a cliché then). But he’s the best of the PD pilots, and when a new high tech military-style surveillance copter is introduced, Murphy is chosen to fly it.

Nicknamed “Blue Thunder”, it’s a high tech beast of a vehicle, capable of capturing infrared video, long distance sound, full PD computer connectivity, stealth abilities and with a badass phallic rotating machine gun at its chin. After a city councilwoman is murdered Murphy stumbles upon a conspiracy involving the same people who have brought the copter to the force. When Murphy discovers a more nefarious intention for the vehicle, Murphy goes rogue in order to set things right.

If you ever thought “Blue Thunder” was an 80’s high concept hackjob, you just have to look at its writing team once of which is Dan (“Alien”) O’Bannon who knows his way around tense genre action. O’Bannon takes his concept very seriously. While the helicopter is central attraction of the picture, overriding themes of police corruption and public privacy does not take second fiddle.

The year 1984 was like a shadow on much of pop culture – the arrival of George Orwell’s the prophetic year and title of his seminal 1950’s work of speculative fiction. Fears of the future and technology were in the air. And it’s no coincidence one of the other great thrillers of the decades is John Badham’s own “War Games”, which, like Blue Thunder, captures the fear of computer technology as accessible mainstream entertainment.

As piece of action cinema, John Badham directs with the heighest order of skill. Badham’s aerial photography is simply the best-ever put to screen. Badham takes great care to use as little blue-screen as possible, finding clever ways to mount his camera on the actual helicopters with the actors at its controls. A number of visually stunning aerial scenes are staged – the finale being the finest aerial combat sequence I’ve ever seen. There’s not fakery in the choreography of the battle between the Scheider’s “Blue Thunder” and Malcolm McDowell’s sleek military gunship. Astonishingly Badham stages the scene in around the high rise buildings of Los Angeles, complete with full gunfire, rockets firing and the destruction which would likely ensue. Of course, there’s no CG to be had, instead clever use of scale models and good old fashioned practical effects.

Badham’s cast does their work diligently without being upstaged by the cool machinery. Roy Scheider rarely made bad movies, and like his other cop roles fits naturally in the uniform. Malcolm McDowell hams it up as the foil, Murphy's smug British rival with his own catch phrase – ‘Catch ya later.’ Candy Clark, like always, exuded warmth as Murphy’s dedicated wife, Daniel Stern as the affable rookie cop, whom we know by the rules of buddy cinema will likely die horribly. And of course, there’s Warren Oates, in his last role, as Murphy's gruff yet loyal captain.

A film like Blue Thunder would never be made with as much realism as Badham did it. CG would certainly be employed – a lazy device, which gets director’s off the hook for actually being creative. John Badham hasn’t made a feature in a while, instead taking paycheques from TV series’ like “Heroes” and “Crossing Jordan”, “Las Vegas”. He’s 68 now and thus earned his right to relax and take the money and run. His legacy of pictures from “Saturday Night Fever”, “War Games”, “Blue Thunder”, "Nick of Time" and more should keep his reputation intact. Enjoy.

“Blue Thunder” is available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


mike said...

Do note that everything you said regarding 1984 as a cultural event is accurate, but since Blue Thunder actually came out in 1983, not 84 as you kept mentioning or hinting, it was spared at that time from getting lumped in. It was a summer blockbuster wannabe going in, had a great ad campaign, made its money quickly, and then moved aside as more dominant films like Return of the Jedi (of course), Flashdance (despite being released weeks earlier then Thunder), and Badham's own War Games. It made an impact on video, but again, not the social impact you seem to be claiming. It went away, and the lame TV spinoff certainly helped to speed up the process.

It's good to look back on this with a critical eye and notice what it brought up. I had fun with this film back in the day, and I'm sorry that not a lot of people under 30 seem to remember or even heard of it. But let's not make more out of it then what is was considered back in the summer of 1983: a cool looking helicopter movie with likeable actors and very good to great action scenes.

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks Mike, for the clarification. I'll make the date change