In fact, with the amount of movies I’ve been watching, that would be a great name for this blog. This 80’s action classic pops up on cable every so often, but I hadn’t watched it all the way through in many years. It’s actually a lot better than I remember, sort of a mix of late 70’s anti-government paranoia and well, a helicopter action movie. Name a helicopter movie that isn’t Blue Thunder. Even the guys over at The Internet Helicopter Movie Database concede that it is the ultimate helicopter movie, despite cataloging every appearance of a chopper on film. Fire Birds is another chopper-centric movie, but from what I hear it makes Navy Seals look like Saving Private Ryan.
Roy Scheider makes anything good; if he’d been in the short-lived Blue Thunder TV show, we’d have never watched Airwolf. And this movie is no exception. Here he’s Frank Murphy, a police chopper pilot in Los Angeles, patrolling the city to assist the cops on the ground. When we first meet him, he’s timing himself on a digital watch. He’s becoming slightly unhinged, affected by his service in Vietnam, and begrudgingly accepts a new ride-along partner, played with innocent charm by Daniel Stern. He grouses a bit at the intrusion into his chopper, but it’s clear that he likes the company. Not only is he saddled with the Vietnam Vet cliche, but he’s also shouldering the divorced cop one, so any help he can get shouldering the burden is greatly appreciated.
Stern plays Officer Richard Lymangood, but we only know him as Jafo. They even give him a J.A.F.O. cap. He and Frank patrol the city, calling in suspicious behavior and following suspects with their spotlight. Frank takes a liking to him, and takes him to a favorite spot where they can peep in an actress’s window as she does yoga in the nude. While they’re admirng her flexibility, a robbery goes bad in another part of town; a councilwoman is murdered for her briefcase, but they get there in time to assist in the capture of one of the suspects. Another, played by skeezy character actor Anthony James (last seen as the brothel keeper in Unforgiven) gets away, but they spot him and his car.
They get chewed out by the Captain, a perfectly cast Warren Oates, another favorite actor of mine who uplifts any movie he’s in. This movie benefits greatly from the presence of Scheider, Oates, and finally Malcolm McDowell as Colonel F.E. Cochrane, which we’re told stands for “Fuck Everybody.” He’s Murphy’s nemesis from his Vietnam days, responsible for his flashbacks. He’s an ice cold operator who gets to test out the new police chopper, dubbed “Blue Thunder” at a demonstration in the desert.
The new chopper is the stereotypical “black dragonfly” swooshing over the mock city, armed with a minigun pod on the front linked to the pilot’s helmet. Wherever he looks, the cannon follows. I’m pretty sure this is the first minigun in an action movie, before Jesse Ventura got to lug one around in Predator. Cochrane gets to show off the chopper’s abilities in picking out terrorists from the crowd, but as Murphy puts it, a lot of the civilian dummies get blown up too. He’s told that 10% civilian casualties is “acceptable,” unless of course, you’re one of the civilians.
Later on he and JAFO get to fly in Blue Thunder’s first test on the streets, and play with all its gadgets. It seems tailored for covert surveillance, with a whisper mode for the rotors, telescopic microphones to pick up conversations, and infrared sensors for viewing people through walls. It also records everything to a tape deck in the belly. Of course Murphy immediately spies on a cop’s house and records his sexual shortcomings; then later, they find Cochrane meeting with some politicians, hatching a nefarious plot called T.H.O.R., or Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response. The movie does love its acronyms. THOR is designed to put down riots, and that pesky councilwoman who got murdered was against the project.
But whoops, Cochrane happens to look out the window and sees the silent helicopter. JAFO wants to deliver the tape to a guy he knows at a TV station, but the bad guys have other plans. Things never bode well for the sidekick in these movies. The way he gets it was pretty memorable, I used to think about it as a kid riding my bike. This of course pushes Murphy over that razor edge he’s been riding, and he steals the chopper to help his ex-wife deliver the tape. Her crazy driving habits were established earlier, and she gets a chance to drive her little Maverick (or Vega, or Monza- one of those bug-eyed late-70’s coupes) like a maniac around L.A. with Scheider giving air support.
The fabled minigun is adept at cutting cop cars in half, so they send F-16’s after him with heat-seeking missiles. But they’re not smart enough for wily Murphy, who knows how to mask his heat signature with clever stuff like a barbecued chicken stand, and the sun’s reflection on a skyscraper. Only after the poor Angelenos are showered with debris and dead chickens do they send in Cochrane with an attack chopper to put him down. The battles between Blue Thunder and the police choppers are damn good to this day. About the only chopper scene more impressive is in Terminator 2 when the T-1000 skims under a highway overpass with only a few feet to spare. They play hide-and-seek between buildings, chase each other through industrial areas, and perform the requisite chase down the storm drains of Los Angeles.
Frank Murphy goes into the books as a bad-ass the same caliber as Snake Plissken for sticking it to the man. The movie tries to generate some anti-government paranoia like classics such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor but it’s pretty vaguely done. The movie is really chopper porn and succeeds spectacularly in that regard. It probably spawned tons of “black helicopter” nightmares among the tinfoil set, but there are many better and easier ways to spy on people. Blue Thunder does have a bit of “Knight Boat” syndrome (there’s always a canal, or an isthmus, or a lagoon) where things inconvenient for a helicopter are still tasked to it, like shooting terrorists off a school bus with a Gatling cannon. Snipers, anyone?
LAPD didn’t want their name mentioned, so they call the chopper guys “Astro Division” which sounded pretty cool in ’82. The movie doesn’t have that hard an 80’s vibe except for the computer graphics. They keep a late-70’s feel, from the grimy streets full of crime to the bureaucratic oppression in brown suits as the enemy. It holds up very well today, and could be remade as an Enemy of the State type thriller. Though nowadays they wouldn’t have the balls to give Murphy Gulf War syndrome, and the bad guys would be corporate instead of creeping governmental power.