Friday, April 10, 2015

Film Friday: Blue Thunder (1983)

Have you ever run into a movie that is just stupid on so many levels and yet the film still rocks? No, I’m not talking about Captain America 2, I’ll talk about that next week. I’m talking about Blue Thunder, a movie that I just can’t resist. And do you know what it is that makes Blue Thunder so great? I have no idea. Let’s see if we can figure it out.


Blue Thunder is the story of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) who got sick of fighting sharks in Amity, changed his name to Frank Murphy and decided to become a divorced police helicopter pilot for the LAPD’s Astro Division. Roy plays things fast and loose and is constantly in trouble. In fact, he’s just been called in again for a psych evaluation because a great many people suspect he’s crazy because he suffers from PTSD from Vietnam.
As our story begins, Roy gets introduced to his new partner, Officer Lymangood (Daniel Stern). Roy takes Lymangood around town and shows him the sights, which include a motorcycle cop having an affair and a model who strips naked and dances in front of her window and is apparently deaf to helicopters inches outside her window. Her neighbors are not and Roy and Lymangood get in trouble. They get in extra trouble too because while they were peeping, a city councilwoman was killed in an apparent rape attempt a few blocks away. Roy, however, suspects it wasn’t really an attempted rape because there was an abandoned car in the area that disappeared. Makes sense, right?

Anyhoo, Roy and his partner are chosen to be the test pilots for a new program the federal government is testing in Los Angeles. Under this program, the cops will be armed with one kick ass helicopter called “Blue Thunder,” which will patrol the skies of the city. This thing has a canon on the front which shoots very precisely, except when it doesn’t, and the feds admit that they want to use the chopper for “crowd control from the air” during the upcoming Olympic games. Roy smugly tells them that “crowd control from the air” didn’t work so well in Vietnam.
It soon turns out that the feds are working with Malcolm McDowell, a Brit, who commanded Roy in Vietnam and wanted to have him up on charges for refusing to commit war crimes. Malcolm warns the feds that Roy is “totally unsuitable” for their purposes, but then tells them not to ask for his removal from the program. Instead, Malcolm tries to kill Roy... but fails.

Roy then goes on his first patrol with Blue Thunder. Fortunately for him, the feds are having a midnight meeting with their brigade of killers while Roy is in the air and they speak openly about wanting to use Blue Thunder for crowd control. Oh, and they talk about killing Roy. Roy makes a video of the meeting using Blue Thunder’s recording equipment. At the same time, Roy discovers that the supposed rape of the council woman is connected to Blue Thunder because Blue Thunder is part of something called “Project Thor,” and the “rapist” dropped a note at the scene which included the word THOR.

Roy decides to steal Blue Thunder and take the video to the press. The rest of the movie is a sort of three-dimensional chase scene where Roy is chased by choppers and F-14s while protecting his girlfriend’s car from the pursuing police.
Why Blue Thunder Rocks!

Hmm. Ok. Let me start by admitting that this movie is nonsense. It is packed with key points that are flat out stupid and seriously flawed. Consider these issues:
● Roy is a troublemaker and is viewed as crazy enough to need psychological evaluation. Yet strangely, he gets chosen to be the lead pilot in this impressive new program with its ultra-expensive new chopper? Who made that decision?

● Roy determines that the council woman wasn’t raped because he saw an abandoned vehicle in the area and it later vanished. He assumes this means it was a professional hit. But, um, why? Why would a professional drive a beater but a rapist wouldn’t?

● At the scene of the rape/assassination, they find a paper with the word THOR written on it. This is the name of the government’s secret project. Why would a competent hit man carry around such a paper? Also, Roy later connects this to prove that the council woman was assassinated. This is meant to vindicate Roy, only Roy was just guessing about the rape and his crime was peeping instead of working, not guessing wrong about the rape.

● How can the naked dancer not hear a helicopter right outside her window? Those things aren’t silent. And again, why would Roy get this plum Blue Thunder assignment after getting caught messing around on the job?

● Malcolm McDowell was in Vietnam? Really? He’s British.

● If Malcolm and the feds thought Roy was unsuitable, presumably because he won’t stop insulting Malcolm and complaining that the program is immoral, then you would think it would be easy for them to pick a different pilot. Why risk putting him on the project? And why not put a federal observer in the chopper instead of Roy’s buddy?

● Why are the feds holding a meeting at night? Why are they meeting with their assassins?

● Finally, the reason we (and Roy) are supposedly outraged by Blue Thunder, i.e. the thing that motivates the entire movie, is that Roy discovers that the government wants to use it to quell riots at the Olympics. And supposedly it is Roy’s discovery of this which causes him to steal and destroy Blue Thunder. But the feds actually tell this to Roy right at the beginning when he tells us that “crowd control from the air” didn’t work so well in Vietnam. In other words, they are up front with him the whole time, and everyone just acts like this is still a secret.

What’s more, what riots? There aren’t any in the film and America hadn’t seen riots in nearly 20 years at that point. Also, as an aside, nothing of the sort actually happened in Vietnam as the US military never got involved in riots or crowd control.
Arg. What a load of stupidity! So you have a guy who is given a key assignment no sane person would ever give him. He is given that assignment by the bad guys who then decide to kill him when they discover that he’s been assigned to their project... a project for which they no doubt had the power to select the pilots. He freaks out about something he already knew an hour earlier in the film, after watching the stupidest meeting ever between the bad guys and their hired killers, and a running shootout begins.

This is a stupid film.

And yet... it’s fricken awesome. Yes, it is.
What I love about this film is that it is an unapologetic action film. All the stuff above is basically just flavor that you aren’t supposed to think about. McDowell works, despite being British, because he’s an odious villain. Roy gets the assignment because we like Roy. We like his personality. We trust the actor, even if we would never trust the character, and that trust washes away the character’s flaws for us. Moreover, he’s anti-establishment enough to be the rebel this movie needs, and his kind of crazy is risk-taking, which is what makes it believable that he has extraordinary skills.

So as bizarre as it may sound, the unbelievably of this film is precisely what makes it believable.

Beyond that, shooting this thing was an amazing technical challenge. For example, to get many of the air shots, Director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games) actually placed stuntmen with cameras on the outside of helicopters to get the right shots. That makes some of the flying scenes second to none. Check out this photo...
The writing is superior too in that the film does an amazing job of ratcheting up the tension in every scene. And the payoff is very strong because the film skillfully builds the hero (Roy) and villain (McDowell) as equals, which makes Roy’s victory all the stronger, not to mention that Roy must do what we are told is impossible to win. Compare that with modern films where the villains turn out to be mindless cowards or nut jobs. None of that is true with McDowell, who is skilled and rotten. And that creates real tension in the final challenge.
Ultimately, what sells this film however is the presence of Roy Scheider... and the helicopter. Almost every screen minute is dominated by Roy. Fortunately, there is just something about Roy that makes you like him. Roy is loyal, courageous and morally right. He is the underdog. He is the everyman who is crapped on by everyone else, but keeps rising above by giving as good as he gets. And he blows things up. And do you know what else? The helicopter is fricken cool!

What more could you want?

Check this one out if you haven’t. You’ll like it.


Dave Olson said...

They weren't F-14s, they were F-16s. Your argument is invalid under the "One Little Mistake" clause of the International Internet Protocols.

But let's just say that it isn't. (I know, but call me a dreamer.) Blue Thunder is an awesome movie. Great action scenes, a rough-around-the- edges hero, a slimy villain with a British accent, the late great Sergeant Hulka, some helicopters, and a nude contortionist. What more could anyone ask?

Well, one could ask for some reduction in the stupidity. It doesn't make much sense to have a suspended screw-up with PTSD take the cyclic of a multi-million dollar super-chopper for its test runs when you have a perfectly sociopathic pilot (with a British accent!) who can do it for you. And if he's that high up in The Big Conspiracy, he wouldn't let Murphy get near the thing. As Cochrane said of Murphy, "He's totally unsuited for our purpose."

And if I wanted to get really nit-picky, I'd point out that a Chevy Vega is not an ideal car for Murphy's girlfriend to evade cops and do other high-performance things. The damn thing would fall apart like the Bluesmobile at the end of The Blues Brothers if she tried to do half that stuff. But I won't get nit-picky...

...because this movie frickin' ROCKS!!! None of that CGI or hyper-cutting crap like most modern "action" movies. I really regret that I was too young to see this in a theater. I'll have to get this one on Blu-Ray soon.

More to the point, the movie was incredibly prescient. Thirty years ago, the idea of the Government watching and listening in on what you're doing as well as having files on you that could be accessed from anywhere was pretty far-fetched. Now it's yesterday's news.

ScottDS said...

^The Blu-Ray (the one with the "Special Edition" banner) includes a 45-minute documentary which might feature one of Roy Scheider's last interviews.

Andrew -

Yes, I agree. This movie's a load of fun, and it's best not to think about it too much. It proves what I've heard elsewhere: audiences will always like characters who are good at their jobs, even if the movie itself doesn't entirely work. Just a few notes:

-A year later, Frank Murphy would change his name to Heywood Floyd and go up into space!

-I'm sure his "crowd control" comment re: Vietnam was just a euphemism. As for using Blue Thunder to quell riots, it's been a while since I saw the film, but were they expecting riots? Or were they intending to start a riot in order to prove the worthiness of the helicopter?

-Were there no Brits who fought in Vietnam? Regardless, McDowell is always a fun presence, especially as a mustache-twirling villain. My friend and I still say, "Catch ya', later!"

-If the film were remade today, it would be about drones, and the riots would be based on recent, uh, racially-charged events. (Nothing wrong with using current events but we both know how it would end.)

-Badham's had an interesting career. He started around the same time as Spielberg but obviously never achieved the same level of fame and fortune. He's certainly technically proficient and has directed some audience favorites... who knows why director A becomes a household name and director B doesn't?

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Andrew.
I liked this film also, for the same reasons you indicated.
Didn't you know it was a requirement, during the 80's and 90's for hero cops to be crazy and non-conformist?

Remember the tv series with Jan Michael Vincent and Earnest Borgnine?
Cheesy but lots of action, and Earnest Borgnine. :)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Aye, I could see that: Black Drone Down. Or ThunderDrone. Game of Drones?

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

E.T. Drone Home.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Yep, the one mistake rule. LOL!

I agree with everything you've written. In particular, the flight scenes are amazingly well done. No CGI, not quick edits to hide what is happening, just solidly choreographed action scenes.

And yeah, sadly, our government has easily surpassed the worst nightmares Hollywood presented in the 1970s and 1980s.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've been thinking of mapping out Brody's career. It's amazing how Scheider's choices can all be rammed together in some strange way as if they are the same character. Maybe next week! :D

If this were remade today, I suspect it would be about some white supremacist corporation that wants to use a new stealth helicopter to create a Tea Party revolution. And naturally, the president would be involved either as the main leader or the target. Blech.

I think the problem for Badham was that his choices were much more generic Hollywood, so he comes across as more workman like. Spielberg took major chances, and also tapped into national issues of interest (beaches/sharks and UFOs).

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! It certainly seems like a bunch of the cop heroes from the time had to be crazy. Mel Gibson comes to mind in Lethal Weapon. What's more interesting is how all the cop heroes of the time had to be nonconformists.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi Andrew,
Yeah, it was kinda funny, the cips all being non-conformists. Oh, and the captains, LT's or chief's were akways yelling at the hardboiled, NC cops, Lol.
Actually, Those cliches never really bothered me, and there was lots of humor in those situations, but real cops would virtually never get away with all the stuff most of those cops did.
Say, would be an interesting post, talking about all those film cops and what they got away with bbecause they were lovable characters.

Of course, the yelling bosses with heartburn happens in real life, I bet. :)

Jim said...

Did you mentioned using a BBQ chicken stand as a decoy for a heat-seaking missile? Also, the TV series based on this movie launched Dana Carvey's career...

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, That was a pretty funny moment.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I'm not sure why every hero cop needs to be a nonconformist? It probably says something about our frustration with "the system."

Kit said...

I didn't even need to read through the list of plot-holes to pick them up. So, it is a fun, thrill-ride of a movie?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It's a lot of fun. Just enjoy the film and don't think.

PikeBishop said...

Ah that one scene, for which super, super, super slo-mo was invented ;-)

Koshcat said...

I have nothing to add. It has been a long time since I saw the movie and I also watched the tv show. The tv show with Jan Michael Vincent and Earnest Borgnine I believe was Airwolf. Loved that show too.

Ty in TX said...

Very late to the party but one caveat on your review, Andrew. The papers with Project THOR you're referring to were actually in a briefcase that the councilwoman was carrying. She got tipped off that there were outsiders in the neighborhoods and barrios that were stirring up trouble. One of the hitmen dropped the some of the papers trying to get away.
IIRC, the Big Conspiracy boils down, lets make some riots happen, use the copter to put them down, sell more of them, profit.

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