With the year of George Orwell’s 1984 looming on the near horizon it was not at all surprising that Hollywood would make a film where corrupt American government officials were seen developing a system that could not only wage war on the American populace, but spy on them as well. Thus in 1983 Columbia Pictures, and director John Badham, gave us the technological thriller Blue Thunder – a Big Brother movie with a super helicopter. But gazing back across the 35 years since its initial release the film looks almost quaint by today’s standards, certainly when compared to the events of 9/11 bringing forth the Patriot Act – allowing the government to eavesdrop on whoever they like – and modern military drone technology being a lot scarier than any helicopter could ever be — no matter how suped up its armaments are — it is difficult to think that Badham’s Blue Thunder could really hold up.
The film posits that the government could use a military-style combat aircraft for police surveillance over American soil – despite numerous laws strictly forbidding such a thing – in the event of a large-scale civic disobedience, during the upcoming 1984 Olympics. The movie’s hero is Officer Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), a maverick LAPD helicopter pilot and Vietnam War veteran who butts heads with his crusty, yet lovable, boss Captain Jack Braddock (Warren Oates), while also fending off the evil machinations of his old war buddy Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell). It is the villainous Cochrane who will eventually end the film with a brilliant aerial dogfight against Frank – blowing up a good portion of Los Angeles in the process – but is Cochrane this film’s sole villain?
The basic plot of Blue Thunder is that there is a shadowy group of government men who want armed helicopters patrolling the skies over America – keeping the Blacks and Hispanics under a watchful electronic eye – and to get certain pesky laws changed so that this can happen they have people stirring up trouble in some of the poorer neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. When a city councilwoman uncovers this plot – a program called Project THOR, which is to use helicopters in a military role to quell civilian disorder – she is killed, and it is her death that has good ole Frank Murphy thinking something fishy is going on. With the aid of rookie helicopter observer Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), and Frank’s spunky girlfriend Kate (Candy Clark), they will expose the villainous plot and save the day.
Directed by John Badham, and written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, this film is an overly fun techno-thriller, populated with the standard Watergate type government villains as well as the stereotypical maverick hero, but in the case of Blue Thunder the villains are even dumber than Nixon’s bumbling robbers, and the hero isn’t all that heroic.
Let’s take a look at the villains; we first meet government agents Icelan (Paul Roebling) and Fletcher (David Sheiner), who seem to be running the Blue Thunder program, as they give the rundown on their proposed program to Murphy and his boss Braddock, but the big question here is why is Murphy involved at all? Right out of the gate we learn that Murphy is a mental powder keg – he tends to have Nam flashbacks at very inopportune times – and has been ordered by the LAPD Review Board to undergo psychological re-evaluation, yet somehow this still puts his name at the top of the list of pilots to test one of the most advanced military helicopters in the world. How does that even make a lick of sense? Frank is even on suspension – for Peeping Tom activity while at work – when he gets called in to attend a sunrise demonstration of the Blue Thunder, and he even has dark history with Cochrane, who Frank witnessed throwing a Viet Cong prisoner out of a helicopter during the war, but strangely enough, none of this seems to disqualify Frank.
Frank’s appointment as test pilot for the Blue Thunder – which he gets to operate without even one supervised flight – is beyond ludicrous, the villains could have simply demanded a replacement, which certainly no one could have rightfully oppose, but Cochrane waves away such notions, claiming he can handle it. I know villains in these types of movies tend to underestimate the hero, but in this case they veer wildly into the criminally negligent category, and when Frank and Lymangood overhear the entire conspiracy – aboard the Blue Thunder while in “whisper mode” as they hang outside the Federal Building – the bad guys should just arrest each other for gross incompetence. So not only are the villains a bunch of murderous conspirators, they are also a bunch of bloody morons, who have only themselves to blame for their failures. Frank Murphy would have not been a problem if they had simply, and rightfully, stated that he was grossly unqualified for the project.
Frank Murphy is depicted as the Don Quixote type hero, pushing against bureaucratic windmills, but if you actually look at what good ole Frank does in this movie, you will have to admit that he’s really not all that heroic. Sure he stands up against “The Man,” but at what cost? After his partner is killed, Frank steals the Blue Thunder – needing to use it to ensure the incriminating evidence of the government conspiracy makes it “safely” into the hands of the local news – and the resulting battle between Frank, the police and military, leads to immense damages to the city, and most assuredly a high body count. The film tries to dance around the death and destruction the hero causes – we don’t actually see any bodies – but any half-awake viewer must realize that people are dying during Frank’s crusade. And the worst thing about it all, is that he intentionally puts innocent lives in harm’s way. He even opens fire on Cochrane’s helicopter — while his targeting system is malfunctioning — without seeming to care where all his bullets are flying.
Further Examples of Frank Being a Dick:
• Frank destroys two LAPD helicopters – shooting one out of the sky and causing the other to crash – without seeming to have any concern for the lives of his fellow police officers on board, people who are not part of the conspiracy but who believe Frank has gone nuts. And can you blame them? He is known for “wigging out” and now he just stole a $5 million dollar weapon of war.
• When a police car pulls over his girlfriend – who is trying to bring the incriminating tape to the press – Frank uses his helicopter’s M61 Vulcan 20mm Cannon to saw the police car in half. This is a six barrelled rotary gun – firing no less than 6,000 rounds per minute – and not some precision weapon. Thus, the two police officers, if by some miracle were not hit by one of those bullets, would most likely have been killed or at least seriously injured by all that flying shrapnel.
• When the military send a pair of F-16s to “surgically” take Frank out – using heat seeking missiles – our hero uses the heat of a barbeque shack in Little Tokyo to divert the missile. We see staff members of this BBQ Chicken Shack fleeing the building before the explosion, but there is no way Frank could be assured everyone got out before the missile hit.
• Frank avoids the next “heat seeker” by hovering near a glass and steel skyscraper, so that the missile would lock onto the buildings windows – which had been heated up by the sun – and several floors of the building are completely destroyed in the following explosion. Are we again expected to believe everyone evacuated in time?
• Next our “hero” shoots the wing off of one of the F-16s – which at the speeds these planes travel, would have been next to impossible for Frank – but we do see the pilot safely eject. So score one for Frank, but wait, what about that now unmanned plane? This is downtown Los Angeles, the building he hit being one of the Arco Towers, so this plane isn’t going to harmlessly plummet into the Pacific, it’s going to land smack dab in the middle of the Financial District.
What is interesting to note is that the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby dealt with crazed helicopter pilot Frank Murphy going on a rampage across Los Angeles, before being heroically shot down by an F-16, but the studio were not too keen on having such an unsympathetic main character – apparently none of them saw Taxi Driver – and so Frank’s psychological issues were toned down and a true villain was added in the form of Cochrane. These changes may have made the film more palatable for audiences – and Malcom McDowell does make for a great villain — but the studio’s need to also keep all those awesome action set-pieces in place made the film a tad bipolar. The movie though incredibly fun, as is Roy Schieder’s performance, the end result was a bit of a mess, if looked at too closely.
Blue Thunder is a decent action/thriller with a fantastic cast – this was Warren Oates last role and he steals whatever scene he is in – and the Blue Thunder itself is one of the best cinematic monsters brought to screen. The plot may not hold much water, and it has several goofy moments – I particularly laughed at the fact that neither Frank nor his buddy new what THOR meant – but the action is fun and the actual conspiracy underlining the movie’s plot does hold up rather well, a little too well going by today’s current events.
Blue Thunder (1983)
For the aerial dog fighting sequences alone I can recommend John Badham’s Blue Thunder, and with the excellent cast he assembled it brings it all up another notch, making this a film would would work as a nice double bill with John Badham’s other technological thriller War Games.