Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Blue Thunder

The summer of ’83 was a great time for director John Badham, who had BLUE THUNDER and WARGAMES in theaters at the same time. BLUE THUNDER began production in November 1981, but Columbia didn’t release it until May 1983, when it debuted in first place at the box office, nearly doubling the grosses of the also debuting Richard Gere thriller BREATHLESS.

Macho performances by Roy Scheider (ALL THE JAZZ), Malcolm McDowell (TIME AFTER TIME), and Warren Oates (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP); a tight synth score by Arthur Rubenstein (STAKEOUT); and a very cool futuristic helicopter engaging in exciting stunts and chases far outweigh the demerits of the screenplay by LIFEFORCE duo Don Jakoby and Dan O’Bannon. Released the summer before the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, BLUE THUNDER and its themes of government overreach and citizens’ expectation of privacy remain relevant more than thirty years later when Americans are subjected to the Patriot Act, NSA wiretapping, and drones that kill without mercy.

Blue Thunder is a super-helicopter ostensibly developed for police to keep the peace during the L.A. Olympics, but rebellious LAPD pilot Frank Murphy (Scheider) and his rookie partner Lymangood (Daniel Stern) discover it’s really being tested for use as a secret weapon. Blue Thunder is bulletproof, equipped with high-tech video and audio equipment, fires four thousand rounds per minute, and even operates in “whisper mode” to keep its missions clandestine. Making the plot an especially personal one for Murphy is his old nemesis Cochrane (McDowall). He tried to have Frank court-martialed in Vietnam and is not only Blue Thunder’s test pilot, but also involved in the sinister government conspiracy to misuse the helicopter and murder Murphy and Lymangood to keep it secret.

Badham is counting on the audience being too wowed by the action to pay attention to the plotholes, which are abundant. The script never satisfactorily develops potentially incendiary story points like an attack on a black city councilwoman and the shadow conspiracy’s plan to incite the city’s Latin American population to riot (how and why?). In fact, except for Cochrane, the fate of the conspirators, including at least one murderer, is left hanging, though a last-scene voiceover tries to promise an overall wrap-up.

But. Will you care? Not likely. Scheider is a solid action hero, as usual, who gets to play Murphy with a touch of post-traumatic stress syndrome to humanize the beleaguered pilot. The charming Clark (AMERICAN GRAFFITI) keeps us rooting as Murphy’s girlfriend, who’s written as a reckless, spacy, and frankly absurd character. Stern (DINER) is a likable sidekick, and McDowell properly annoying. Every irritated word out of the mouth of the great Oates, in one of his final roles (he died before BLUE THUNDER’s release), is pure gold (DIRTY HARRY’s Dean Reisner’s screenplay polish provided Oates with much juicy dialogue). BLUE THUNDER earned a deserved Oscar nomination for Frank Morriss and Edward Abroms’ film editing, but lost to THE RIGHT STUFF. “Catch ya later.”

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