Big 80s Rewatch — Blue Thunder

To stem the tide of constantly watching Facebook feeds and other news sources during this tense season of political discontent, I offer a series of retrospects rewatching some of the classics from the past, namely the Ronald Reagan-era driven, not really politically correct, box office sensations of the 1980s.

We begin, in true nonsensical fashion, with what is claimed to be “the biggest helicopter action film of all time”: Blue Thunder. Goodness knows what that means, but Blue Thunder (1983) was one of the first in a string of summer hits in a year that also gave us Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, WarGames, Octopussy and Risky Business.

Blue Thunder was one of a growing number of “political thriller/action adventure” films rising up to whet the public’s appetite during the IranContra-gate proceedings of the Reagan years. Along with Rambo: First Blood Part II, WarGames, Capricorn OneThree Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man (although not part of the same era), there was a growing public feeling that the government was not being entirely truthful and conspiracies were around every corner.

In retrospect, Blue Thunder could probably play right at home in today’s troubling Trump presidency as it did in 1983. The story revolves around a rebellious helicopter pilot-cop, Officer Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), who is asked to participate in a government project flying The Special, an armed surveillance helicopter patrolling the skies over Los Angeles. He discovers a conspiracy about the helicopter project and fights the government and his own police department–using the helicopter dubbed “Blue Thunder–to bring the truth to the public. Once the political thriller is established, mayhem ensues.

As it states in the opening credits of the film, the technology shown actually existed at the time and has no doubt improved in the nearly thirty years since the film was shown. One can only imagine this is where conspiracy theorists get their ideas about “black helicopters” listening in to your most intimate conversations.

Officer Murphy is introduced right off the bat as a pilot barely on the edge–using a Casio stopwatch (remember those??) to check his sanity. His old observer abandoned him because of some rumored “off his rocker” moment that’s never fully explained. His new observer is none other than Home Alone alumnus, Daniel Stern, in one of his earliest roles. Murphy’s a veteran of the LAPD’s Astro Division (a fancy term for police helicopters) and he quickly introduces Stern’s character to the wonderful, slam-bang world of policing in the 1980s. Right at the start there’s a bank robbery (with black perpetrators dressed in pretty ridiculous clothing) robbing a liquor store and getting into a gun fight with cops. There is no PC “stop or I’ll shoot” here, just shoot, shoot and shoot. After the gun battle, Stern’s character encourages Murphy to prove a rumor about a homeowner who likes to stretch and exercise…in the nude.  (Blue Thunder is rated “R” and this is one of the reasons why.) Hovering for awhile while Stern ogles, they are drawn away to another gun battle in a ritzy LA neighborhood. There’s a woman being attacked by “local Barrio” types and they get drawn into a gun battle with cops. The woman is badly injured and paperwork in the woman’s briefcase goes flying, scattered by the helicopter.

Thanks to the news, we learn the woman has died of her injuries. She was also on the mayor’s special council investigating the possibility of more public rioting with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games coming. (We see the woman was being followed by a creepy dude hiding out in an abandoned car spotted by Murphy and Stern beforehand, so we know there’s more to this woman’s death than a random act of violence.)

We get a sense of Murphy’s civilian life when he heads for home–using his Casio stopwatch to time himself as he spins his muscle car around the pylons at the police department. Clearly, everybody in L.A. drives like a madman (see this point later when we’re introduced to Murphy’s girlfriend Kate, who also happens to be the only girl in the movie not killed who is referred to by name (played by Candy Clark.))

Officers Frank Murphy and Daniel Stern (his character is called Richard Lymnagood, which is a running joke throughout the film) are grounded for their “observation stunt” with the naked yoga practitioner. No sooner are they both busted from duty when they’re reassigned to a secret project from the government. Murphy is introduced to “Blue Thunder”, a special helicopter that carries the latest “look and shoot” tech. The demo involves a gunnery range where the helicopter uses its firepower (a Gatling cannon similar to that carried by the A-10 Thunderbolt II) to kill “terrorists” and avoid hitting civilians. The demo doesn’t go off perfectly, there are some technology problems, but the point is made clear by two chilly government officials (appropriately named Iceland and Fletcher (who has a porn ‘stache to boot) that the U.S. doesn’t want a repeat of the Israeli team massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games. Blue Thunder is intended as a surveillance weapon. The firepower is a deterrent.

Murphy is then introduced to his old pal and nemesis, Colonel F.E. Cochrane, played from the “let’s-make-a-Brit-the-bad-guy” casting department, Malcolm McDowell. (Frankly, I was surprised it wasn’t the actor David Warner. He might have been too busy making Time Bandits.) Cochrane and Murphy have a lot of bad blood together as it’s revealed that they both “flew together in ‘Nam”, a common-enough trope invoking the Vietnam War as a time when the U.S. government did really bad things to people. Cochrane is the government’s test pilot for the Blue Thunder project and he’s angry at Iceland and Fletcher for picking Murphy to be the pilot for the L.A. tests. “But don’t worry,” he remarks to them. “I’ll take care of it.”

Cochrane wants to test Murphy and Lymangood in a game of “follow the leader” over Los Angeles. Little does Murphy know that the cheeky Brit sabotaged his helicopter by loosening one bolt.  (As though it was that easy to sabotage a helicopter.) Murphy and Lymangood are nearly killed when they have to put the helicopter down hard in a construction lot. The locals don’t seem to like their sudden arrival and a fistfight nearly breaks out.

Despite Cochrane’s complaint and the tensions between them, Murphy and Lymnagood are given a chance to take the helicopter out on their own. This is that moment where, once again, we discover that the law enforcement professionals we call upon to protect us are the worst sort of children (See the Lethal Weapon movies for further examples.) Lymnagood, a technical junkie, wants Murphy to try out all the helicopter’s gizmos–especially the surveillance capabilities. They tap into federal databases and listen in on a conversation between a hooker and a client. They come upon a police motorcycle parked in front of a house, determine the resident is actually home (using a government database that is updated with the whereabouts of every person based on where they live) and use the helicopter’s boosted microphones to pick up the cop and the resident in mid, and then failed, coitus–broadcasting it over the loudspeakers. “Good old double dork,” Murphy comments.

They discover the helicopter’s whisper mode, reducing the noise of the blades, and scope around buildings without a care (or a warrant). Seeing Cochrane leaving the police department, Murphy decides to follow him and uses the helicopter’s technology to find out Cochrane has a shady past with the government. They use the copter to spy on him. They come upon a federal building, find Cochrane and others using infrared sensors and microphones to pick up an important discussion. They overhear the helicopter is to be used offensively. The council woman who was killed was going to reveal the project and had to be silenced. Cochrane gets permission to get rid of Murphy too. At the worst possible moment, Cochrane pulls back a drape and sees Blue Thunder hanging out there, listening in on everything they say.

Back at base, Lymnagood immediately yanks out the heliocopter’s black box tape which recorded everything. Murphy goes to his boss, but stops himself from spilling the beans when he finds Iceland there. He sees Lymnagood take the tape. Lymnagood goes home, but he’s ambushed by a number of thugs who want the tape. He won’t tell them and gets away, but he’s run down by the lead thug. Murphy shows up at his house, sees the paramedics and the cops, and hightails it out of there. Returning to Astro Division, he gets inside the helicopter, puts in a fuse they removed so not to record their own conversations and hear’s Lymnagood’s last recorded message. He took the tape and tossed it in a dumpster at a drive-in theater.

With all the political thriller cards on the table, it’s up to Murphy to set things right. He steals the helicopter, contacts Kate and tells her to get the tape from the dumpster and take it to the TV station (because that’s what the free press is for.) Using Blue Thunder, he shepherds her from the cops, using the guns to randomly destroy several police cruisers without hurting the cops (naturally). Thus we get to see “crazy woman driver” as Kate, driving a Chevy Vega of all things, manages to elude the LAPD and reaches the TV station. Agent Fletcher is there, hoping to intercept her, but a producer reaches her first.

Now the entire Astro Division goes after Murphy, chasing him in their helicopters with SWAT guys through and under the L.A. canal (see Terminator 2, Grease and other films that use this famous locale). This is fairly exciting stuff, since much of it appears to have been shot over the streets with the actual aircraft. The Air Force gets involved and tries to shoot Murphy down with “heat seeking missiles.” This turns into a farce as Murphy manages to trick one missile into destroying a BBQ stand (no one is killed, naturally) and in a scene oddly reminiscent of 9-11, the side of an office building (we have no idea how many people were killed there either). Murphy turns the guns on one of the F-16s and shoots it down (highly improbably, but this is Hollywood.)

Murphy then gets attacked by Cochrane who’s flying a faster military chopper (it resembles a scout but its armed with two machine guns.)  The two duck and dive around L.A. with Blue Thunder’s guns damaged and locked in one position. Finally, Murphy decides to do the one thing Cochrane says is “impossible”; Murphy loops Blue Thunder over Cochrane, gets behind him and blows him out of the sky.

To insure the helicopter will never be used again, Murphy drops the helicopter on a set of tracks in front of a fast-approaching freight train and allows the aircraft to be destroyed. The staging of this scene almost suggests Murphy never gets out the helicopter in time, but it’s all in the editing. The last scene is of him walking away while the copter goes up in a ball of flame. A TV personality voice-over announces investigations into the incident.

So Kids, What Have We Learned?

Welcome to the 1980s. Throughout the film, there’s a callous disregard of civil rights, warrants, public safety, and the use of extreme force. See Godzilla (with Matthew Broderick) for more examples of civil servants behaving very badly.

Blue Thunder, despite its attempt at being an action film, is pretty sedate. Three-fourths of the movie is built around Murphy and Lymnagood trying to unravel Project THOR and what the government is doing with the helicopter. We are fed scene after scene suggesting the government is up to no good.

There’s an exciting mid-film scene that shows the helicopter’s firepower, but except for the ending, the movie is mostly all flying and using tech. Much of the flying footage and the scenes with the tech were cannibalized for Blue Thunder, a short-lived TV series on ABC. Without the guns, the copter is pretty lame. See Air Wolf for a much more violent interpretation towards fast, heavily-armed helicopters that make wicked sounds.

The Special was actually a French-built helicopter, with bolted on pieces to mimic the Apache cannon, cockpit and armor plates. The changes made to the helicopter actually made it pretty slow and different shots had to be used to suggest how fast it was. The “loop” effect was performed with a radio-controlled model.

PTSD, especially after the Vietnam War, is a common-ailment for movie heroes.  The first draft of the screenplay called for Murphy to be “really insane” and he uses the helicopter to injure and kill many people before he’s brought down by jets. Subsequent later drafts portrayed Murphy as a sympathetic character.

The actor Malcolm McDowell is apparently terrified of flying. You can see his discomfort in the scenes he was filmed chasing Murphy.

We don’t really understand what attracts Candy Clark’s character of Kate to Frank Murphy. She’s a single mother driving a Vega around in a scary fashion, and that’s the entire backstory of her character. Some of the scenes they have suggests she wants to help him through his issues. It’s not made all that clear why he’s attracted to her, except that she puts up with him.

On a modern note, it’s clear to see there’s a lot of abuse of surveillance practices in this film. Today, with our privacy surrendered to email systems and social media, it appears the government doesn’t need a big blue helicopter to spy on us anymore.

Coming up on the Big 80s Rewatch, another movie about yet another cop named Murphy.








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