Director: John Badham
Writers: Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby, and Dean Riesner
I wish Roy Scheider was still around. When it comes to mid-level authority figures, he really set the tone for the 80s, 90s, and well into the present. Just the other night I saw The Crazies (2010), where Timothy Olyphant plays a much-put-upon small town sheriff in the middle of a turbo zombie outbreak, but what he’s really doing is channeling Roy Scheider arguing with Murray Hamilton about closing the beaches in Jaws (1975).
And nobody has the same knack for giving with the sly wink to the audience, the one that says “Can you believe this shit?” If you’re like me, you saw Blue Thunder in a drive-in theater when you were 13 and the two things you remember are 1) the bad-ass machine gun and 2) tits, but you’d be wrong. No, this movie boils down to 1 hour 45 minutes of Roy Scheider rolling his eyes.
Scheider plays police helicopter pilot Frank Murphy. A Vietnam Vet with PTSD–who is already on thin ice with his superior Captain Braddock (an awesome Warren Oates) for a recent aerial “crack-up”–Murphy and his new partner, Officer Richard Lymangood, witness the murder of a politician under strange circumstances. Murphy and Lymangood are soon drawn into a government conspiracy centering on the eponymous “Blue Thunder” helicopter, a serious escalation in the firepower available to civilian law enforcement. Malcolm McDowell makes an appearance as Murphy’s old nemesis from Vietnam, Colonel Cochrane, and the two must eventually do rotor-battle over the early 80’s dystopia that is industrial L.A.
Scheider gives the show away from the beginning. Attending a demonstration of Blue Thunder’s offensive capacity, he’s the first to call bullshit on the fact that a gigantic Gatling gun is not the most efficient way to separate terrorists from civilians. When his trainers describe the helicopter’s various stealth, spy, and constitution-shredding capabilities, he makes the point that all efforts to “control the ground from the air” are a joke. The original “Black Helicopter” of militia legend is nothing more than an effort by the American government to import the Vietnam War and its doctrinal failures into the continental U.S. Of course Scheider oohs and aahs over the thing once he gets to fly it, but he consistently reminds the audience that the whole project is a misconceived waste of time and money. He almost doesn’t bother to flee the government conspiracy that takes his partner’s life, he’s so busy being a wise-ass.
Three things date this movie for the contemporary viewer. One – the helicopter skirmish occupying the second half of the movie (the half where something actually happens) was filmed using actual helicopters, and only the most sparing CGI. The in-cockpit footage of McDowell grimacing is the real thing, since the man was mortally afraid of flying. It does beg the question: why does Murphy draw his enemies (several helicopters and two fighter jets) into a lethal air battle over L.A., a famously populated piece of real estate? That doesn’t seem like a signature good guy move.
And then there’s the depiction of law enforcement and race. I bet money that police radio dispatchers no longer describe suspects as “Negroes.” The banal racial profiling in this movie is no longer polite studio fare. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, only that – in the same way there will never be another Blazing Saddles (1974) – racism of this nature can’t be depicted in a major release movie without a critical, qualifying theme being implicit in the depiction.
But the real kicker is director Badham’s idea of a worst-case scenario intrusion of military force and intelligence gathering into civilian policing. Can one helicopter with a dial-up Internet connection and a machine gun really be that frightening after all we’ve been through – the Patriot Act, the military satellites, the NSA farming our emails for data? And the difference isn’t only one of degree. Badham imagines an America where the Watts race riots have frightened the government so badly that it conspires against its own people to maintain its authority. But what’s that compared to a panicked nation that begs its government to assume these same coercive powers?
Blue Thunder gave rise to a television show of the same name which subtracted everyone but the helicopter and added an armed pickup truck which, if I remember, was called “Rolling Thunder.” Mercifully, it lasted a single season. Airwolf, an imitator that surfaced in 1984, managed an amazing 3 seasons owing to the talents of co-star Earnest Borgnine and the fact that the helicopter somehow had a soul?! Both programs relied rather heavily on the expedience of resolving plot crises by shooting them.
If you’re hankering after conspiracy movies starring hi-tech vehicles of one kind or another, why not take another look at the John-Carpenter-penned Black Moon Rising (1986)? It’s Tommy Lee Jones without the wrinkles! Or if you’re looking for serious fun with Cold War flavor, you could do worse than Clint Eastwood’s Firefox (1982).
You know what? Forget all that. We need more Roy Scheider. You’d be better off watching Jaws again. Now that’s a movie!
-Rental Rehab review by Joshua