This ship is equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimeter electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a shit-storm in anybody’s language!”
Frank Murphy, helicopter pilot for the LAPD and former Army chopper pilot during the Vietnam War (and whom we see suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service during that conflict), is selected as a test pilot for a brand new helicopter packed to the gills with state of the art armaments and quasi-futuristic stealth and surveillance technology. It’s supposedly intended for use during large scale civil disobedience operations, but that doesn’t ring right with Murphy, particularly after the helicopter, nicknamed “Blue Thunder,” blows the shit out of a simulated city street setting with mocked-up vehicles and human-sized targets. That a former rival of his from the war, Colonel “Catch ya later” Cochrane, is in on the whole thing doesn’t sit well with him, either.
Murphy, along with his rookie partner, Richard Lymangood (aka “JAFO,” or “Just Another Fucking Observer”), uses Blue Thunder’s sooper seekrit peeping tech to follow Cochrane to a clandestine meeting, and collects evidence that the colonel and a group of government douche nozzles are behind the death of a prominent city councilwoman. Her murder is part of a larger conspiracy put into motion by this wannabe cabal, who plan to use the helicopter to assassinate political enemies. After Lymangood is killed, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and it’s a race for him to get the evidence to someone who can expose the conspiracy before the bad guys get to him, culminating in a helicopter chase between Murphy and Cochrane in the skies above Los Angeles.
Released on May 13th, 1983, Blue Thunder made a point of letting potential audiences know that all of the surveillance and weapons technology stuffed into the helicopter was real, if not used in this particular configuration. Of course, we look at it today and think, “Pffft. That’s all he’s got? Drones, dude. Drones.” Forty years ago, however, Blue Thunder was bad-ass.
Personally, I still think the helicopter looks pretty slick.
The plot of Blue Thunder is so thin that it makes Smokey and the Bandit seem like Inception, but a lot of what makes the movie work can be credited to actor Roy Scheider, who offers up yet another of his “every man” performances which served him so well throughout his career. Malcolm McDowell chews every scene with relish as the dick antagonist, Cochrane, and a young Daniel Stern provides much of the film’s early humor (both as instigator and target) as Lymangood the JAFO. Obviously, the hardware and the flying stunts take center stage, especially in the movie’s latter half, but Scheider is there to anchor things and keep them from going too far into the realm of absurdity.
Don’t get me wrong: I dig this film. It’s one that’s an easy candidate for a rewatch on a rainy day, and it’s interesting to see how some of the ideas it proposes stack up against our pervasive “conspiracy theory culture” and our “surveillance society” with cameras everywhere, expanded police powers, and even those drones we mentioned earlier. How much of the stuff that seemed “far out” in 1983 is now at the disposal of law enforcement, or even has been surpassed by current technology?
Things that make you go, “Hmmm….”
The movie was successful, both critically and financially. A spin-off series aired on ABC the following year, which wasn’t a sequel but rather a reworking of the premise, in which the helicopter is used by a special unit to hunt down the baddest of bad guys, and so on and so forth. The show was cancelled after eleven episodes, ceding the helicopter action show bragging rights to the other 80s AwesomeChopper, Airwolf, which premiered that same year.
(So far as the helicopters go, I’ve always preferred Blue Thunder to Airwolf, even though I think Airwolf would win in a head-to-head contest. Yes, I’m a geek, and I put some thought into that particular battle royale.)
Blue Thunder seems like the perfect choice for a remake, and I’ve heard rumblings about that very thing from time to time, but so far nothing appears to be sticking. I’m sure someone sooner or later will get on with dicking that up. Meanwhile, we still have the original. I may have to spin it up tonight.
“Catch ya later.”