Friday, January 11, 2013

The Films of 1983 John Badham Double Feature: Blue Thunder

John Badham had a banner year in 1983 as the director of two blockbuster techno-thrillers: War Games and Blue Thunder. 

Both films involve the bugaboo of advanced computer technology, which was, generally speaking, the broad theme of many genre films in 1983.  Films from Superman III and Never Say Never Again to the anthology Nightmares circled around the frightening notion that our technology might run amok, or at the very least fall into the wrong hands. 

Blue Thunder is among the most entertaining of this 1983 techno-bunch, and it pushes the pedal hard on action and spectacular fireworks. Although some of the character dialogue is undeniably clunky, the movie nonetheless accurately forecasts the rise of the modern surveillance state, one fact that makes the film relevant in 2012.  Today, however, the helicopter prototype’s spying capability looks positively quaint.

Certainly, Blue Thunder owes some creative debt to 1982’s Firefox, another film concerning a deadly hi-tech aircraft and a protagonist battling PTSD following the Vietnam War.  Yet the action here is so rousing that it is easy to gloss over the film’s occasionally contrived plot mechanisms or its transparent debt to other cinematic thrillers.

In fact, Blue Thunder was so well-received by audiences of the day that it spawned a TV spin-off (also titled Blue Thunder), a terrific TV knock-off (Airwolf), and a model kit of the titular vehicle, which I owned, built…and cherished.  Wish I still had it…

Although this film is nearly thirty years old, Blue Thunder’s visceral obsession with state-of-the-art aerial combat (over a modern American city, Los Angeles, no less), permits it to hold up much better than WarGames.  Also, the film remains relevant in part because of the strongly enunciated social commentary about man and his machines. 

In short, machines don’t yet boast the capacity for morality, and so man must decide how to use his new toys.  In Frank Murphy -- a veteran who witnessed immorality among men in Vietnam -- the audience gets a hero who represents mankind’s inherent struggle against entrenched power, and power unconcerned with the good of the many, but rather the riches of a few.  Yet despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Murphy won’t let the machine take over, even if that outcome is precisely what big government and big business apparently desire.

In gazing intently at conspiracy and corruption (not to mention the nexus of government and big business government contractors), Blue Thunder in some fashion feels like a product of the 1970s, the great age of conspiracy movies.  But the strong focus on computers and technology also gives it the Video Game Age sheen of the early 1980s. 

In whatever way one chooses to parse the film, Blue Thunder remains a hell of a lot of fun.

“I love morals, and the moral of this story is: If you're walkin' on eggs, don't hop.”

Cop Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) and his rookie co-pilot Lymangood (Daniel Stern) of Los Angeles Air Support test fly a new urban pacification helicopter nicknamed “Blue Thunder,” over the city streets, and while on surveillance or “whisper” mode, learn of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving corruption and murder. 

The makers of Blue Thunder prototype have been making trouble in L.A.’s barrio so the city will requisition more copters to manage the crime problem before the upcoming 1984 Olympics.  This top secret project to create urban mayhem is called Project T.H.O.R. (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response).  Worse, Murphy’s old nemesis from the Vietnam War, Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) is one of the key conspirators behind the scenes.

Murphy and Lymangood -- or JAFO (Just Another F’ing Observer) -- secretly videotape a conversation about T.H.O.R. from the cockpit of Blue Thunder but soon become fugitives from the police and City Hall.  When Lymangood is murdered by Cochrane’s goons, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and asks his girlfriend, Kate (Candy Clark) to deliver the incriminating videotape to a local news station.

While Kate eludes the police on the ground, Blue Thunder and Murphy are called upon to battle police helicopters, state-of-the-art Air force jets (armed with heat-seeking missiles), and Cochrane’s gun ship…

You're really riding with the angels, sweetheart.

The Blue Thunder screenplay by the late Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby certainly sets up some amazing action sequences, but it’s also clumsy and contrived at crucial points. 

For instance, McDowell utters his character’s catchphrase -- “Catch you later!” -- a whopping three times in the first forty five minutes of the film, thus paving the way for a triumphant turnaround from Murphy at the denouement.  When Murphy blows up Cochrane’s gunship, he says, inevitably, “Catch you later!”  The laborious repetition of the phrase is so contrived and stupid that it’s easy to see the punch line coming.  That established, the audience I saw the film with in the theater in 1983 absolutely loved it, so who am I to complain?

Similarly, there’s a weird scene early in the film wherein Kate, Murphy’s girlfriend, takes a wrong turn on the way to a Sunday family outing with Frank and her son.  She recklessly drives her car into oncoming traffic to get back on course, and, well, let’s just say it’s an egregiously hazardous act, especially with a child on board.  But, of course, Kate’s slightly-crazy nature (not to mention demolition-derby driving skills…) are important ingredients in the film’s climax, so again, we’re seeing a laborious and somewhat clumsy set-up.

You could probably make the same point about all the exposition regarding Murphy’s aerodynamically-impossible “loop” in a chopper.  It gets brought up so many times before the film’s end that we just know there’s going to be a “pay off.”  

Certainly, Blue Thunder is not alone in harvesting seeds like this early in the film, for cropping at the climax. It’s just that the set-ups here are so brazenly transparent.

Yet here’s the thing.  You absolutely will not care.

The film’s final thirty minutes feature jaw-dropping stunt after jaw-dropping stunt, both on the ground and in the air.  And Blue Thunder vets this material with almost no fakery, which is incredible.  As an adrenaline ride, then, Blue Thunder succeeds wildly.  This film also made me realize just how long it’s been since we’ve seen an action movie like this one; one that doesn’t rely, to some unhealthy extent, on digital effects.  The car chase, in particular, is riveting. 

It may not be politically-correct to write this, but there’s a thrill that comes from knowing that movie stuntmen and stunt pilots really performed the actions in question.  Here, some of the helicopter stunts near the ground, and weaving in and around a sewer and bridge system, are downright stunning (and terrifying). As a result, you leave a viewing of the movie feeling exhilarated.

Blue Thunder in action.

And again...

To its credit, Blue Thunder also finds a perfect metaphor for the relationship between man and machine. Murphy wears a clunky-looking wrist-watch that can count up to a minute, or sixty seconds.

As it does so, it displays a very 1980s-style, spiro-graph-looking graphic of a circle moving towards completion.  Murphy utilizes this stop-watch function to test his sanity….several times-a-day.  If he can still tell time, or possess a “feeling” about the reality of time, he’s sure he isn’t going insane. 

In terms of psychology, this timed “sanity test” might be considered a little bit hokey.  In terms of metaphor, it’s actually pretty good.  The watch, like Blue Thunder itself, is a machine that humans can control…if they choose to do so.  

Technology too is a test, then, to be mastered, not something that should be allowed to oppress or control mankind. Murphy understands this fact of life.  He masters his life (represented by the watch) and uses that same determination to master the helicopter, and, finally, make an ethical final decision about it.  If he can master terrifying memories (represented by the Vietnam flashbacks), then certainly Murphy and others can master machines and computers.

Mastering self; mastering the machine.

At its heart, Blue Thunder concerns this idea, that man must rein in and manage his machines, and not vice-versa, or humanity will pay the price.  In addition, however, the film worries about new technologies which could diminish privacy and create a Big Brother-type world where no one’s secrets are safe. 

At one point, Murphy and Lymangood track a motorcycle cop to an assignation with a bored housewife.  They listen in on him making love to her, and then, afterwards, erase the tape, realizing that it is a horrible invasion of privacy.  Again, Murphy acts as the film’s moral barometer.  That motorcycle cop may be a laughing stock, and he may be engaged in a morally-questionable act, but, as Murphy concludes, people deserve to have their “quickies” in peace.  

That’s a silly example, perhaps, of what’s at stake in the modern surveillance society, but like the stop-watch metaphor, it concisely makes an important point.  If we are to remain free, we must have some surveillance free zones where we can simply be….human.  We must have some places to let down and simply be ourselves, without fear of being observed, or worse, blackmailed.

What happens when machines are everywhere, and they see and hear everything?
From an amazingly graphic scene of naked calisthenics (!) early-on to a great supporting performance by Warren Oates as Murphy’s put-upon superior at Air Support, Blue Thunder flies by with almost no wasted energy, and a surfeit of good humor, intrigue and action.  If I had to select one film today, I’d probably choose Blue Thunder over WarGames, in terms of Badham’s oeuvre, in part because of the performances, in part because of the rousing action, and in part because of that gorgeous helicopter, which even today looks like absolute poetry in motion. 

The film’s final scene, which sees Murphy pulp Blue Thunder in a final act of defiance to City Hall, makes perfect sense in terms of the film’s theme and story line.  But I still hate to see the old girl go up in a fireball.  

Of course, It’s the right climactic move for a movie about conspiracies and about concerns over privacy.  But the thirteen year old kid who first saw Blue Thunder just knew there should have been further adventures, with Murphy again mastering the (wonderful) machine.


  1. Hey!

    That movie/series it's one of my favorite 1980's memories. My dad even nicknamed our blue datsun "relámpago azul" (he looks like a latino Roy Scheider).

    Great blog!

  2. Remains one of all time favorite John Badham film. Captured L.A. perfectly during that decade, too.

  3. Good movie, great DVD with nice extras. I was so surprised by the story about Malcolm McDowell that he was terrified of flying and had it in his contract not to do flying scenes. But when he saw Roy Scheider and Daniel Stern do it, he didn't want to be lesser than them and did those scenes, acted through them but when each take was done he was terrified.

  4. I loved the movie as well, but I did have one pet peeve. Murphy's chase through the city is thrilling, but it's only through a number of contrivances that he doesn't end up killing a huge number of innocent civilians. For instance, when he uses the smoke stack as a decoy for the heat seeking missile, the workers in the factory all somehow sense they should run screaming from the premises, simply because they hear a helicopter hovering overhead. Had they stayed at their post, which would have been perfectly reasonable, they would have been incinerated when the missile struck. Murphy also shoots a police car in half without injuring the cops just doing their duty inside, and shoots down a jet without injuring the pilot, or anyone in the city as the jet crashes in the middle of downtown L.A. (if I remember correctly). I could understand taking these chances if he was trying to avoid WW3, but he's just trying to expose a conspiracy.

    But I'm probably being a bit too harsh.


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