Blue Thunder (1983) – Directed by John Badham – Starring Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Daniel Stern, Candy Clark, and Warren Oates.
Watching BLUE THUNDER now it’s hard to say what would be more anachronistic if this film popped up in your local 2011 movie house: an action movie starring a middle-aged non-action star like Roy Scheider, or a movie about a helicopter.
BLUE THUNDER is a weird movie; on the one hand it’s a cop movie about a grizzled vet who gets suspended and uncovers a major criminal plot, but then there’s that kick-ass helicopter, which doesn’t really do much ass-kicking. It’s much more a cop movie than an action movie, but nothing about this film feels like it needs to have been made for the big screen. The helicopter is far less interesting than the death of a mayor’s aide, but the helicopter gets the bulk of the screen time.
I could never fully embrace BLUE THUNDER, but what makes the film worth watching is the performances of Roy Scheider and Daniel Stern (with a shout-out for Warren Oates, who plays one of the most stereotypically grizzled captains you’ll ever see). Scheider doesn’t fit the mold of today’s action star, but he’s an engrossing performer at this point in his career, able to walk that fine line between being the best and being unhinged, and he does his best to make Frank Murphy an engaging character. More comfortable in the air then on the ground, Murphy (Scheider) is a compelling figure, but Bruce Willis will do this role a hundred times better when DIE HARD comes along five years later. Murphy is a Vietnam vet who maybe is going a little bonkers; he can’t get past what happened in Nam on a helicopter he flew, so when he sleeps he dreams about it and sweats. Nothing from that earlier moment really plays an important role in the film, other than the fact that one of the soldiers who tossed the Vietnamese dude out of the copter to his death was Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell).
Cochrane ends up being the current pilot for Blue Thunder, and Scheider is brought in because the army is throwing the locals a bone and letting them get involved. These two hate each other, which manifests with McDowell trying to kill Scheider by monkeywrenching a helicopter Frank is going to pilot during a tryout.
The tryout, it should be noted, takes place over the city of Los Angeles, which means Cochrane isn’t that smart – if Scheider crashes the copter and gets killed, or kills civilians, there’s going to be an inquiry, which will bring more heat than his governmental band of thugs should want.
BLUE THUNDER’s biggest problem is that the plot is too fragmented and coincidental; it probably should have either concentrated on the murder of the mayor’s aide or the personal vendetta between Murphy and Cochrane but by combining them, by making Cochrane involved with the people who are behind the murder, the film tugs in two directions – Murphy solving the crime and Murphy getting vengeance on Cochrane. Murphy finds out about halfway through the film that Cochrane is involved in the crime, which robs us of that mystery, and then doesn’t adequately bring the Murphy/Cochrane rivalry to a head because it’s so black and white.
The film also does really silly things, such as having Murphy and Lymangood (Daniel Stern) gather this big piece of incriminating evidence against Cochrane and his buddies while inside Blue Thunder as they hang silently outside and office building’s window (and McDowell’s look of “oh sh*t!” surprise, but then landing the bird and going through a convoluted cloak and dagger bit to get the video tape of the incident to the media. It’s stupid – they’ve already kept the copter out longer than they were supposed to and this info they’ve gathered is incredibly powerful, so why they don’t just take Blue Thunder right to the news station and hand deliver the tape is beyond me. Well, it’s not beyond me since the movie still has a good half hour and the bulk of the film’s action to go, but it’s a dumb decision.
The movie also spends a lot of time building Blue Thunder up, but then fails to capitalize on the helicopter’s awesomeness. We see it do little things, but given that Cochrane comes after Blue Thunder is a small, dorky helicopter that looks like the one TC uses on Magnum, P.I., how awesome are we really suppose to think it is?
Why the filmmakers thought Cochrane in a dorky helicopter would provide adequate villainy for the film really is beyond me. They should have had Red Thunder or Black Thunder or Mauve Thunder waiting in the wings so we’d get an appropriate battle and a real nemesis battle. Instead, at the film’s most climactic moments, we’ve got Murphy in the most advanced helicopter in the world, and Cochrane in a bubble copter with machine guns. It’s not a good fight.
We get a scene early on when Murphy and Lymangood fly out of their area so they can spy on a naked woman stretching because …?
Because the movie wanted to show some ass and boobs, I suppose. How tough would it have been to have them spying on the mayor’s aide and then watch her get attacked from their weaponless copter, unable to do anything? Doing so could have condensed the plot in a meaningful manner and offered a tighter narrative push.
Murphy also cares so little for public safety that it’s hard to think he hasn’t come undone, but we still root for him because Cochrane keeps saying, “Catch you later” in the most annoying manner possible. When the military sends some F-16s after him with heat seeking missles, Murphy tricks the missiles into detonating in an OFFICE BUILDING! Nice one, Officer Bin Laden.
Scheider does what he can to make Murphy compelling and when he’s on-screen the film is a long way from terrible, but he can’t do anything about the rest of the movie, which fails to ever … wait for it … get off the ground. Oh, snap!
BLUE THUNDER is worth a watch for Scheider and Stern, and the helicopter is undoubtedly cool, but the film feels more like a missed opportunity than an enjoyable watch.