In the 1970s, Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby were struggling screenwriters trying to break into the movie business. They would eventually break through: O’Bannon would go on to write Alien and Jakoby would write the scariest movie of all time (to me at least), Arachnophobia. Not only were they barely scraping by, they couldn’t get any sleep; regularly at night, they were awakened by low flying helicopters (As someone who has recently moved to L.A., I now know what they’re talking about). Spurned on, they wrote a heavily political script about a police state where helicopters controlled the city. Unfortunately for them, Hollywood watered it down, but it may be one of the few times studio executives might have been right.
While I would like to see that Orwellian version of Blue Thunder, the final product is very entertaining in its own right. It’s essentially a fun and games movie in which crazed PTSD sufferer Frank Murphy (played by Roy “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” Scheider. Think an older version of Mel Gibson from Lethal Weapon) and idealistic new guy Richard Lymangood (Daniel “wet bandit” Stern), patrol the skies of Los Angeles. They’re keeping a watch out on the orange shirt, cowboy hat wearing criminals (and yes, one of the criminals is dressed like that) who terrorize the night. These patrol sequences are fun and entertaining in an action movie way, but there’s something very natural and almost routine about them: Scheider and Stern have great chemistry, and the banter between them feels like you’re watching two guys perform their job.
The reason this movie is called Blue Thunder is because that is the name of a state-of-the-art helicopter that will be used to counteract any possible terrorist moves during the upcoming Olympics (I also would like to see that as well). The test pilot during the demonstration is Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcom “singin’ in the rain” McDowell), who just happens to be a war rival of Murphy, and their rivalry is still current. However, this rivalry is never quite fleshed out enough outside of a few sardonic quips. Cochrane also shows up in Murphy’s Vietnam flashbacks, but just like the flashbacks, Cochrane’s role in them is murky.
It’s honestly when the plot shows up that the movie’s weaknesses show. This is not helped by the fact that the main, main plot isn’t introduced until a little over AN HOUR into the movie! That is not to say that before this point the movie was aimless; it was entertaining filler at its worst. In an act of voyeurism that has become commonplace for them (they saw a naked woman exercising and listened in on a couple having sex), Murphy and Lymangood stumble upon a conspiracy to use Blue Thunder to infiltrate the helicopter program; Cochrane is present at this meeting, and has every intention to get rid of Murphy.
Fortunately, for the sake of plot convenience, Blue Thunder has a tape system involved, so every word is recorded on tape. So all they have to do is take the tape out and leak it right? Sadly, the plot doesn’t go away that easily, I’m afraid. One of the members sees Blue Thunder conspicuously hanging outside the window, and the bad guys are not happy that they recorded it all on tape. So the rest of the movie becomes a cat and mouse chase of them trying to get the tape back. Murphy does get the tape leaked out, courtesy of his girlfriend Kate (Candy “bimbo American Graffiti blonde” Clark), Cochrane is killed and Murphy destroys Blue Thunder by placing it in front of a moving train.
To be fair, once the plot is introduced, it does move at a good pace and the conspiracy plot didn’t come from nowhere; the bits had been interspersed throughout and they did add up. However, I don’t think the filmmakers realized what was truly interesting about the film: helicopter pilots hosting surveillance on the city. So in that sense, O’Bannon and Jakoby were right. To once again give credit where credit is due though, the plot (as even the most generic plots can do) does allow for some fun action sequences towards the end. They are just that though; generic action sequences.
I’m not one of those art house critics who prefers character over plot, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s not the plots of great action movies we remember. When we think of Lethal Weapon (I swear this isn’t the only action movie I’ve seen besides this one), we think of Gibson and Glover and their camaraderie, or lack thereof. Blue Thunder is no different; I guarantee that in a month I won’t be able to recite the plot to you without reading this review.
I know you don’t care enough to watch this movie based on my recommendation, so here’s the trailer to help you make up your mind. Also, Sony is developing a remake of this, with the focus being on drone technology. I’ll still go see it, but ugh.
Acting: 2/5- Scheider and Stern are great, but the other performances are quite subdued.
Story: 2/5- Action is fun, but the conflict arises too late to be of much concern.
Technical: 4/5- Great night scenes, use of color and good editing (it was nomianted for Editing at the Oscars), but sometimes the night scenes do get a bit murky.