Blue Thunder

This year for my traditional summer movie retrospective I’ve decided to look back at the summer movie season of 1983. If you know your basic math, you can figure out that this is the, what, 40th anniversary of that summer? Sounds right. I was in the single digits at the time and from what I can remember only saw two of these in the theater that summer. So as always it will be fun to watch them in order of release and try to get a picture of what that time was like from an adult perspective.

I don’t really have a thesis for this one other than it had alot to live up to. The summer before saw the release of hits like CONAN THE BARBARIAN, ANNIE, ROCKY III, POLTERGEIST, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, plus two flops that are now beloved classics (BLADE RUNNER and THE THING) and some other interesting stuff like THE SECRET OF NIMH and TRON. It’s widely considered the greatest summer movie season of all time, a claim I’m not inclined to argue against. So good luck trying to follow that, 1983. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.

They also all knew they were coming out against RETURN OF THE JEDI. That was the guaranteed biggest movie of the summer, and some of the others seem to have wanted to ride that wave. We’ll see if they can stay afloat. Anyway, that’s why I’m calling this series…


(Note: yes I did the research and I know that “love” in Ewokese is actually “nuv,” while “nub” is just half of the phrase for “freedom,” but I thought this would make people laugh more because they just know the song is called “Yub Nub.” Apologies to the Ewok community, who I have nothing but the deepest respect for.)

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May 13, 1983 saw the release of a pretty crazy take on the police thriller: BLUE THUNDER, from director John Badham (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, DRACULA), working from a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon (DARK STAR, ALIEN, DEAD & BURIED, HEAVY METAL) & his first-timer writing partner Don Jakoby. It’s one of those movies that says, “Hey guys, check out this special police unit, it’s pretty interesting.” And the unit is the people who fly the police helicopters. Since I was a kid at the time I can only assume it did for police helicopters what SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER did for disco. I don’t know if some of it is based on research or if it’s complete horse shit, but in this they go around fingering people on the streets as drug dealers and rapists and shit, spot abandoned cars and report them, even do detective work in the sky. They don’t just look for and shine the spotlight on the guy making a run for it (although they do that too).

Roy Scheider (SORCERER) stars as Frank Murphy, cocky super cool sunglasses wearing Vietnam vet helicopter hotshot whose quirky thing is that he runs the timer on his digital watch and tries to stop it close to zero with his eyes closed to prove he still has a sense of time. In the opening his boss Braddock (Warren Oates in his next-to-last movie; he died before it was released) sticks him with the obligatory dipshit rookie partner, Lymangood (Daniel Stern, BREAKING AWAY), so he takes him out in the copter to show him the ropes (while also showing us what the job entails).

A very dated element of this is how much of the character of Lymangood is just being a horny peeper, and how it’s treated as kind of a lovable, rascally trait. Bizarrely, word has spread around the department that there is a woman (Anna Forrest) who does some very advanced nude yoga in full view of large windows at exactly the same time every night, and Murphy allows Lymangood, on his first patrol ever, to go off course and hover above this house to watch her for a while. Though this causes them to arrive late to an attack on a city council woman, which becomes central to the plot, that doesn’t stop them from doing this sort of thing. Lymangood later uses a high tech telescope to look down a woman’s shirt. I wish I could say this was strictly an ‘80s thing, but UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY is from 1995 and has a scene where a high tech spy satellite is used to check out babes on the beach. So maybe it’s an ongoing sky-based surveillance thing.

Braddock sends them to the Mojave Desert to watch a demonstration of a new advanced helicopter, Christian name The Special, street name Blue Thunder. To his credit, Frank notices that it’s fucked up that the thing has guns on it and they’re bragging about how many people they can shoot during a riot. They tell him they want this thing for crowd control when the Olympics come to town and appoint him to pilot it due to his experience in the war.

It’s one of those movies that’s very in awe of technology that was probly fantastical then (though the credits claim otherwise) but seems crude today. There are lots of dramatic closeups of gloved fingers pushing chunky buttons, flipping metal toggle switches and pointing at blocky computer readouts. Blue Thunder has an armor shell that looks a bit like the work of the OCP corporation. It uses microphones, telescopes and heat vision to spy on people, and can use a computer to look up files in government databases. And they make a big deal about it having a tape recorder. It’s in the belly of the thing, but Lymangood knows how to open it up and get to it.

Their world is turned upside down when they discover a conspiracy that ties together the attack on the councilwoman and the helicopter program. A total prick rival pilot from Frank’s war days, Colonel F. E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell, CAT PEOPLE), is involved in murdering political opponents to advance the program and further militarize the police. Frank and Lymangood manage to record a sinister meeting and then Cochrane looks out the window, sees the helicopter hovering, and makes eye contact with a caught-with-his-hand-in-the-cookie-jar type of look on his face.

Funny shit. So the movie turns into a fight over the recording, with a decent set piece where Lymangood has hidden it in a dumpster at a drive-in and Frank’s long suffering girlfriend Kate (Candy Clark, AMERICAN GRAFFITI) has to drive in to grab it and get it to the TV station while he’s watching and protecting her from above.

On one hand, I think the concept of a police helicopter thriller is kinda laughable, and I don’t like Scheider having to look ridiculous trying to make it cool. On the other hand this is a cop movie where most of the action is helicopters chasing each other around the city, which come to think of it is kind of cool, at least as a novelty. It’s kind of stiff and limited, but at least it’s unusual.

Frank is not supposed to be flying Blue Thunder anymore, so they send F-16s after him, and they’re just blowing shit up trying to shoot him down (like they did when they chased HULK). And then he has a one-on-one helicopter duel with Cochrane. Oh, and I didn’t mention that he has PTSD that gives him flashbacks that interfere with his piloting. But that goes without saying, I suppose.

I also like that at the end he lands Blue Thunder on some railroad tracks and makes sure it gets smashed.

It’s not the type of movie I expect from O’Bannon & Jakoby, but it’s not what they initially set out to make either. Apparently they came up with the idea when they were roommates living in L.A. and always hearing the police copters fly over. But it was supposed to be more of a critique of militarized policing and the surveillance state. That theme still exists in the movie, and it was the advertising hook, but the movie puts an emphasis on there being a heroic cop to save us from this overreach. The original version was more of a TAXI DRIVER type deal, with an unhinged protagonist whose sickness is an extension of the whole idea of Big Brother looking down at citizens from the sky.

The 1979 first draft is online and it would’ve made for a very different movie. Murphy does seem like the hero at first, but he’s slowly revealed to be totally crazy, having a weird shrine in his bedroom, getting a god complex from watching the city from above, thinking he sees numerical messages in the patterns of movement below, claiming to be Thor, the God of Thunder. (Whether or not the thunder he’s a god of is blue is not specified). At the end he goes on a helicopter rampage to “punish this errant city” until he gets shot down.

That story is way cooler to me, but the studio or somebody wanted to do that move where you buy a script for its great premise and then after a while you decide what would be better would to be to take that out of the movie and do kind of the opposite. So Badham had it rewritten (uncredited) by Dean Riesner (BILL AND COO, COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY, CHARLEY VARRICK, THE ENFORCER).

According to some stories, which I think are either made up bullshit or a joke from an interview, Scheider did the movie mainly as an excuse to not do JAWS 3-D. He followed this with a more controversial, arguably more interesting sequel, Peter Hyams’ 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT, and then narrated Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS.

BLUE THUNDER did well, opening at #1, opening above Jim McBride’s very cool remake of BREATHLESS starring Richard Gere (which I reviewed back in 2012 when it didn’t have much of a reputation, but I think people have been catching onto it lately thanks to blu-ray releases, including a recent one from Fun City Editions). The two of them knocked the early ’80s phenomenon FLASHDANCE down to #3 after a month in the top slot.

Badham had another movie that came out three weeks later, so we’ll be revisiting him soon. O’Bannon of course followed this by writing and directing RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. He and Jakoby reteamed for Tobe Hooper’s Cannon Films classics LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS. Separately, Jakoby has credits on THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, DEATH WISH 3, ARACHNOPHOBIA, DOUBLE TEAM, John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES, and (full disclosure) EVOLUTION. Despite my feelings on that last one, that’s a hell of an interesting filmography!

Hopefully they got some residuals out of this because i.p. franchise trademarks of the BLUE THUNDER lore mythos lived on in eleven episodes of a 1984 mid-season replacement ABC TV show starring James Farentino as the character renamed “Frank Chaney” and pre-SNL Dana Carvey as sidekick “Clinton Wonderlove.” They used stock footage from the movie to get more helicopters in there but also to make it easier on everybody they work with a team on the ground called Rolling Thunder, which includes characters played by act-thletes Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus. That’s really upping the ante on the movie, there – what if there was an elite helicopter police unit… except with cars?

I’ve never heard of this before, but apparently Teddy Ruxpin/Lazer Tag creators Worlds of Wonder had a short-lived video game system called Action Max, for which Coca-Cola Telecommunications (!?) released a BLUE THUNDER game cartridge in 1987. I don’t understand how it works, but you try to shoot at the helicopters in live action footage from the movie.

As recently as 2017 Sony was trying to develop a remake, or at least a reuse of the title, from writer Craig Kyle (THOR: RAGNAROK). And who could blame them, that title is money in the bank. It would’ve been about drones, which sounds more current than helicopters, but even less exciting. Hotshot Afghanistan vet Channing Tatum or whoever as the drone jockey sitting in a cubicle, trying to solve a mystery remotely.

Ah shit, actually I think I just talked myself into it. That could be a pretty cool thriller like THE GUILTY, but I’d lose the title, call it something new. Believe me, you don’t want to anger the copter bros.

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