“Blue Thunder” (1983) is an unsettlingly prophetic action flick…


I remember going to see the action movie “Blue Thunder” sometime in the summer of 1983, just before I began my junior year of high school. This was one of those ‘word of mouth’ flicks that a few of my classmates were buzzing about just before summer break, and upon seeing it, I realized why. I was blown away by the incredible, largely-real helicopter action sequences—the best helicopter stunt work ever committed to film (to this day). I was also a fan of the late actor Roy Scheider (1932-2008) from his work in “JAWS” (1975), and “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984). Scheider plays LAPD chopper pilot, Frank Murphy; a tormented Vietnam War vet who suffers from acute PTSD. There’s also a nicely nasty turn by Malcolm McDowell as Colonel F.E. Cochrane, our hero’s chief antagonist.

1983’s warning of 1984.
What was once an ominous warning is almost quaint today.

Written by Dan O’Bannon (“ALIEN”), Dan Jacoby and directed by John Badham (“Saturday Night Fever,” “Wargames”), “Blue Thunder” had ominous warnings attached to its spectacular action sequences—warnings of local/federal government overreach, the use of military hardware in civilian policing, and civil rights abuses that have largely come to pass, 40 years later. Following passage of The Patriot Act (which passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support), privacy rights were largely compromised in exchange for security, following the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks. This also gave the government unprecedented surveillance authority, as well. The movie’s warnings went unheeded.

“Blue Thunder” (1983)

The movie begins with a dated, early 1980s electronic text, warning us that every bit of weaponry and surveillance tech we will see in the following film is real, and in use. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that that film was released just before the actual year of “1984”; the year that author George Orwell warned us of in his same-titled 1949 novel, wherein privacy would be a long-forgotten (and forbidden) concept.

“There’s an app for that.”
LAPD pilot Frank Murphy checking his sanity with his wristwatch.

The movie opens at the beginning of an evening shift for LAPD Air Support pilot, Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider). Murphy is nowhere to be found during roll call, and his new observer, a young rookie cop named Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), is sent to find him. In the pilot’s ready room, Lymangood finds Murphy, his eyes closed, listening to a countdown on his digital watch; wholly focused on its sounds. The countdown is completed, and Murphy grabs his helmet to follow his new observer out to the pad, ignoring the rookie’s questions about his watch. Murphy’s former observer, Montoya (Joe Santos), has put in for day shifts, following an unspecified “wing ding” with Murphy the previous month (Murphy, a Vietnam War veteran, suffers random bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder). Montoya and Murphy remain on good terms, however, with no hard feelings.

Note: Frank Murphy, in the tradition of 1970s antiheroes, is a flawed protagonist. He clearly suffers from debilitating PTSD, and has suffered from these attacks on the job. By all rights, he really shouldn’t be flying. However, these flaws also make Murphy more real and relatable as a character. A bit of cinematic license is taken.

“Welcome to air support.”

Meanwhile, Murphy breaks in Lymangood by showing him the ropes of LAPD Air Support. An eventful night follows. After their chopper is shot at during a liquor store robbery, pilot Murphy uses the chopper’s blades to kick up dust, and temporarily blind the fleeing suspects—aiding ground units with their arrests. As they settle into their flight and get to know each other, Murphy eventually answers Lymangood’s question about the watch; he uses it to gauge his sanity through perceived time vs. elapsed time, ensuring both are in synch. Murphy later notices a suspicious “junker” Chevy parked in an upscale neighborhood with no license plates. He prompts novice Lymangood to report it as an abandoned vehicle. The ‘abandoned’ Chevy does have a single, hidden occupant (Anthony James), who rises slowly, after the chopper’s searchlight moves on…

Note: Actor Anthony James has made a long career out of playing bad guys in TV shows and movies, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Neutral Zone”) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“The Plot to Kill a City,” parts 1 & 2). He has since retired from acting, and works as a full-time artist.

Low-tech voyeurism.
Lymangood (Daniel Stern) uses binoculars to spy on a nude woman doing her nightly yoga.

Continuing their patrol, Lymangood asks Murphy “about Encino”; something he heard from Montoya. Murphy decides the rookie deserves to know, after being shot at. Flying over to a large luxury estate, their chopper hovers outside a large window, where a beautiful woman (Lucinda Crosby) does fully nude yoga, every night, at 10:30 sharp. While Lymangood uses his binoculars to get a better look, Murphy’s attention is broken by a dispatch alert—an attempted rape is being reported at the home of L.A. city commissioner, Diana McNeely (Robin Braxton), who sits on the mayor’s task force for urban violence. McNeeley is assaulted and then shot for her briefcase. This is not a rape attempt, as initially reported. McNeely’s address is also on the same street where Murphy saw the Chevy junker. Not a coincidence…

Note: The scene where Murphy and Lymangood spy on the woman doing nude yoga is disturbing on so many levels, but it falls in line with the once-common trope of sexual humiliation humor, which was very popular in 1980s movies, such as “Porky’s,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Sixteen Candles,” all of which feature characters observing/performing intensely violative lewd acts for cheap laughs.

Late night, fully-clothed swimming lessons were all the rage in 1980s L.A.

Arriving late at the scene, Murphy uses the chopper’s searchlights to once again aid the police ground units in shooting the armed suspects, one of whom dies face down in McNeely’s pool, while the other is shot trying to scale her fence. The sight of the dying suspect on the fence triggers a Vietnam flashback for Murphy, which quickly subsides. Meanwhile, McNeely’s papers fly out of her stolen briefcase, and scatter across her property. Ambulances arrive to take the suspects to the morgue and McNeely to the hospital. Observer Lymangood remarks, “She looks bad.”

Note: In keeping with Murphy being a flawed 1970s-style antihero, his peeking into the yoga woman’s window has actual consequences, as it puts him out of his patrol area, and makes him late in arriving on the scene of Commissioner McNeely’s assassination.

Not a good time to ask about that cost-of-living raise…
Murphy is suspended by his boss, Capt. Jack Braddock (Warren Oates), following his negligence during the McNeely incident.

After returning to the LAPD helicopter pad, Murphy and Lymangood are told to report directly to the office of their superior, Captain Jack Braddock (Warren Oates); a tough, sardonic, no-bulls#!t sort, who is not without compassion, despite his gruff exterior. A sour-faced Braddock tells Murphy that McNeely is in intensive care, following the attempted rape. Murphy refutes the rape claim, insisting the abandoned vehicle they reported was a stakeout. Braddock doesn’t care. With both suspects dead, the case is closed. However, Braddock is still angered that Murphy and Lymangood were outside of their assigned patrol area, during their voyeuristic time spent ogling the nude woman through her window. For their dereliction, Murphy and Lymangood are temporarily suspended. Braddock then talks to Murphy alone. The captain then tells his old friend that a review board wants him up for psychiatric reevaluation. Before Murphy is dismissed, Braddock reminds him that “when you’re walking on eggs, don’t hop.”

Note: Warren Oates (1928-1982) died following production of the movie, which actually wrapped filming in late 1981. Oates suffered from a heart attack during an afternoon nap. His death delayed the release of “Blue Thunder” from 1982 to the summer of 1983. The film is also dedicated to Oates, following the end credits. I still remember Oates’ very memorable guest-starring role in TV’s The Outer Limits (“The Mutant”), where he played a telepathic megalomaniac who terrorized his fellow colonists on an alien planet.

Smokey is the Bandit.
Another of Murphy’s sanity tests; using his watch’s timer to swiftly navigate a makeshift slalom course.

Murphy then takes his Trans-Am and peels through a series of pylons within the police parking garage, timing it within 60 seconds. He makes it through the course with a second to spare, barely tapping the final pylon with his rear bumper. Arriving home before dawn, Murphy checks his answering machine and hears several messages from his ex-girlfriend, Kate (Candy Clark).

Note: The opening bit with Murphy checking his sanity with his watch, and later with the police garage pylons becomes a recurring motif, as Murphy uses it to assure us, the audience, that he’s still of sound mind. We later see him angrily peel out of the parking garage after a fight with his nemesis, Colonel Cochrane, and he topples a single pylon—an indicator of how anger has temporarily clouded his judgment.

The “I Love Lucy” reboot takes a darker tone.
Murphy and his off-again/on-again girlfriend Kate (Candy Clark).

An exhausted Murphy then hears a car pulling up in his driveway (at 3 am). Grabbing his gun, he runs right smack into a terrified Kate, who enters the house, still holding her sleeping son, Timmy (Ricky Slyter). Murphy explodes at her, reminding her that they both could’ve been killed! Kate says she only came by to return his key, and to get her blender back. In the kitchen, she stumbles across a beautiful lace tablecloth that Murphy meant to give her as a gift. Their defenses melt. They reconcile.

Note: Candy Clark also played the girlfriend of another ‘flying man’ in 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” when she romanced “Thomas Jerome Newton” (the late David Bowie), an incognito extraterrestrial who has come to Earth looking to aid his dying planet, only to become seduced by human culture. When I first saw “Blue Thunder,” I was concerned that Clark would be playing the typically thankless ‘hero’s girlfriend’ role. Watching the movie in its entirety, my concerns were allayed. Kate is a terrific, if sometimes annoying character.

Braddock and Murphy watch a demonstration of Blue Thunder; a dangerous new toy in the feds’ arsenal.

Still suspended, Murphy goes to the McNeely residence, following the commissioner’s death earlier that morning. He finds a paper in a tree written in Spanish, with mention of a project called “Thor.” Murphy then gets repeated messages on his beeper from Braddock (this was the early ’80s; cellphones weren’t really a thing yet). Finding a payphone, Murphy angrily reminds his boss that he and his “f**king beeper” are still suspended. Nonplussed, Braddock tells Murphy he’s being returned to flight status, effective immediately. Reporting back to LAPD, Murphy and Braddock are taken by van to the Pinksville weapons test range. They’re briefed en route by two shady government officials named Icelan (Paul Roebling) and Fletcher (David Scheiner). Icelan explains that in preparation for the 1984 Olympics, the city of Los Angeles is working with the federal government on a new, top-secret project to deal with the potential for terrorism within the city during the games (spoiler alert; the 1984 LA Olympics were just fine)

Note: The militarization of civilian police forces, with the occasional misuse of force-inappropriate hardware, is now an ongoing issue within the United States; this was something the film’s writers saw on the horizon, long before it came to pass.

Blue Thunder’s heads-up display is state of the art…for 1983.

At Pinksville, they sit in bleachers while they watch the demonstration of a heavily-armored, high-tech, all-black helicopter nicknamed “Blue Thunder.” The helicopter is put through its paces by one Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell). The demonstration is emceed by a jovial Sergeant (Ed Bernard), who tells the assembled guests all about the helicopter’s various features, such a swiveling gun turret that fires 4,000 rounds per minute, and only at targets sighted on the pilot’s heads-up display. Blue Thunder flies over a mock town and shoots at various wooden figures, painted red for terrorists and white for civilians. The gunship plows trough the red targets with relative ease, but also destroys a few white ones, as well—a fact that doesn’t escape Murphy’s notice. Blue Thunder will be on loan to the LAPD during its trial phase, and Murphy has been selected by his division to fly it. After the demonstration, Cochrane exits the aircraft and meets Braddock and Murphy. We see instant bad blood between Murphy and Cochrane, and we learned that they served together in Vietnam. Cochrane nearly had Murphy court-martialed on unspecified charges, and there is clearly no love lost between them. As he walks away, Cochrane clucks his tongue, and quips, “Catch ya later,” to which the salty Braddock mutters under his breath, “Irritating little c**ks**ker, isn’t he?”

Note: The late Warren Oates gets the best lines in the movie. His acid wit provides perfectly cantankerous punctuation to multiple scenes throughout the film. He was an inspired casting choice.

“Follow my leadah…”
Lymangood and Murphy are assigned to fly escort for Blue Thunder as Cochrane pilots it above L.A.

The next morning, Murphy and Lymangood are assigned to fly escort for Blue Thunder, as Cochrane test flies the craft above the streets of L.A, as part of the military’s agreement with L.A’s mayor. Before takeoff, Lymangood is given a cap labeled “JAFO” by Montoya. When Lymangood asks what “JAFO” means, Montoya jokingly dodges his question. Before the newly-minted ‘JAFO’ and Murphy arrive at the helicopter pad, Cochrane pretends to be doing maintenance on their police chopper, but is actually clipping a vital cotter pin to the craft’s stabilizing mechanism. Just as Murphy is regaling Lymangood with a story about a time he looped a helicopter, Cochrane interjects, insisting that anyone claiming to loop a chopper is “a damn liar.”

Note: To those who think that perhaps a British Vietnam veteran is unrealistic, there were indeed British troops in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), just nowhere near the numbers of their American allies.

Blade Runner.
Cochrane pilots Blue Thunder while Murphy and Lymangood maintain a tight formation.

After their tense exchange, Cochrane and Murphy take off in their respective machines. Cochrane orders Murphy to fly closer to him than is comfortable for LAPD chopper pilots. As Lymangood remarks, “Any closer and we start eating blades.” As Cochrane’s superior machine forces the standard issue police helicopter to keep up, the cotter pin finally gives, and Murphy loses control. Murphy and Lymangood are forced to crash on a construction site, and are pulled out of their wrecked craft by angry workers. Neither Murphy or Lymangood are seriously hurt. Later, as Cochrane meets Murphy in the LAPD parking garage to gloat, Murphy warns him to back off. We then see an angered Murphy sloppily peel his Trans-Am out of the garage, knocking over a single pylon…

Note: By all accounts, actor Malcolm McDowell had an intense fear of flying in the helicopters during the movie’s production, and allegedly had to be talked into the role by his then-wife, actress Mary Steenburgen. Like actor Robert Shaw, who suffered acute seasickness during the making of “JAWS,” McDowell does a remarkable job of masking his anxiety during his cockpit scenes. Incidentally, the flight dialogue of the actors is looped into microphones for the flight scenes, to simulate actual cockpit chatter.

Train of thought.
Montoya and Murphy have some bad feelings about the military’s sudden interest in the LAPD.

On a rare day off, Murphy meets his former partner, Montoya, at a park while Kate takes Timmy on the park’s train ride. Murphy gives Montoya the Spanish note he found at McNeely’s front yard. Montoya tells him it says something about “strangers in the barrio causing trouble,” with one word not in Spanish: “Thor.” Murphy is starting to see connections. Later that night, at Kate’s place, Murphy falls asleep in Timmy’s room after reading him a story. We see Murphy’s tormented dream of his tour of duty in Vietnam, where he flew a chopper, as a desperate refugee was tossed to his death from the craft. That experience has haunted Murphy ever since.

Note: The original screenplay, according to a DVD interview with the movie’s late writer Dan O’Bannon (1946-2009), was much darker. Murphy’s PTSD condition lapsed into a full psychotic break during the film’s original final act, with Murphy taking Blue Thunder into the sky for a terror-filled flight over Los Angeles—making Murphy an airborne mass shooter. Such a movie would be very difficult to watch, let alone enjoy, especially since mass shootings have become a grim fact of daily existence in the United States. Not something most people would want to see in their ‘entertainment.’

Most of Blue Thunder’s super features are pretty much standard issue on a modern Honda Civic.

After recovering from their crash and learning all they can about Blue Thunder, Murphy and Lymangood are finally assigned to their first night’s test flight in the new machine. As they await takeoff from the pad, Lymangood settles into the observer’s seat, marveling at the electronics gear packed into the ship; 100:1 zoom lenses, infrared cameras, ultra-sensitive microphones, onboard videotape flight recorders (state of the art in 1983), and full wireless access to all national data banks (pre-internet). Once they take off, Murphy familiarizes himself with the craft’s ‘whisper mode,’ which effectively reduces most of the rotor noise. They also play with the craft’s turbine booster, which gives the chopper an instant burst of super-speed.

Note: Rear/side cameras, internet access, phone and digital media playback … these are the features of my wife’s 2018 Honda Civic, not Blue Thunder. Ah, how the times have changed…

High-tech voyeurism.
Lymangood peeks down a woman’s dress from a thousand feet…

In a scene that recalls their earlier ogling at the nude woman’s house, Lymangood uses the zoom lenses to peer down the cleavage of a prostitute from a thousand feet, as she meets with a potential client. Later, they use the sensitive outboard microphones to spy on a police colleague as he partakes in a quickie with his wife (this movie earns that R-rating, no joke). Lymangood then enters his name in the craft’s equivalent of a search engine, where he sees his government profile, including his US Navy service record. Murphy then asks Lymangood to search his name. Murphy’s profile reads “File Under Repair.” Clearly someone is screwing with Murphy’s records. Lymangood then spots Cochrane’s gray Corvette, and Murphy decides to tail him from the air. Cochrane arrives at the federal building downtown, where he partakes in a clandestine meeting about Blue Thunder, which is part of the government’s Project “THOR” (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response).

Note: Once again, sexual humiliation is used for yucks and giggles. While Lymangood peeking down a woman’s dress might (barely) be admissible as police surveillance of solicitation, there is no possible justification for eavesdropping on a fellow cop’s quickie with his wife—let alone broadcasting his premature orgasm on Blue Thunder’s loudspeakers. A similar sexual-humiliation gag was seen in the 1970 movie of “MASH”, when the 4077’s public address microphone was placed under a bed as Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) were having sex.

Blue Thunder also comes equipped with Predator-vision mode…

Parking the chopper in ‘whisper mode’ outside the federal building’s windows, Murphy and Lymangood use their sophisticated surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on Cochrane’s meeting. Murphy’s worst fears are confirmed, as the group discusses the need to assassinate McNeely to stop her investigations into their street gang agitation, which was created to justify the chopper’s use in L.A. When Murphy’s name comes up as a potential source of trouble for them, Colonel Cochrane offers to kill him, as soon as possible. The meeting is captured on Blue Thunder’s flight recorder. Soon, Cochrane pulls back a curtain, and spots the stealthy chopper hovering right outside the window. Blue Thunder then high tails it back to the LAPD, where Murphy is ordered to meet with Capt. Braddock, right away. As Murphy heads off to the meeting, Lymangood carefully retrieves the tape from the craft’s flight recorder. Sitting in Braddock’s office is Mr. Icelan, whose presence prevents Murphy from giving Braddock his side of the story. Braddock tells Murphy that he and Lymangood are off the project and suspended.

Note: Where would we be if movie villains didn’t lay out their evil deeds so concisely for us…?

The aftermath of Lymangood’s murder.

Later that same night, Lymangood returns home to his apartment which has been broken into by feds searching for the stolen tape. Refusing to comply, a bound and gagged Lymangood manages to temporarily escape from his brutal interrogators, until he is brutally run over by a car driven by the mysterious hitman who cased McNeely’s home earlier in the film. After leaving LAPD headquarters, Murphy heads to Lymangood’s place, where he sees several squad cars and an ambulance. At the center of the commotion, Murphy sees Lymangood’s bloody corpse getting zipped up in a body bag. Enraged by the execution of his young partner, Murphy overhears police chatter that he’s being framed as the suspect in Lymangood’s murder. Fugitive Murphy then rushes to a payphone to check his messages. He quickly runs off, leaving his Trans-Am, after spotting a nearby police car…

Note: Lymangood’s murder is the most brutal scene in the entire movie. Even for this rewatch I skipped a few moments of it. It’s also photographed very realistically, with little-to-no Hollywood gloss. It’s ironic that someone as likable as Stern became so popular playing a comic bad guy in the first two “Home Alone” movies. Stern also narrated TV’s “The Wonder Years,” as the voice of the adult Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage).

Murphy listens to a cockpit recorder message from his late partner, Lymangood.

The following morning, a determined Murphy follows up on a message from Lymangood to check instructions he recorded into Blue Thunder’s cockpit microphone. The fugitive Murphy manages (somehow) to sneak back into police headquarters, where he manages to slip into Blue Thunder’s cockpit to play Lymangood’s final message; Lymangood says he stashed the flight recorder tape at a drive-in movie theater dumpster. Before signing off, Lymangood also says he found out what “JAFO” means (just another f**king observer). Murphy smiles as he hears his young friend’s voice one last time. The momentary calm is shattered by a burly (and surly) mechanic who orders Murphy out of the chopper. Tired of taking any more crap, Murphy draws his gun, points it at the mechanic, and replies, “You talkin’ to me, a$$h@le?” With nowhere else to go but up, Murphy impulsively decides to steal Blue Thunder and go public with the sinister machine…

Note: The previous night it’s established that Murphy is a fugitive, since he’s being framed for the murder of Lymangood. Yet the next day, we see him stroll right into LAPD Headquarters and up into the helicopter hangar (appearing on multiple surveillance cameras, no less). No one noticed…?

“Look! Up in the air! It’s a bird! It’s a plane… it’s Blue Thunder!”

Using the chopper’s onboard phone to reach the mobile operator, Frank makes two calls; one to a local news station, and another to Kate. Frank tells the station to prepare to receive a very important package, and he tells Kate where to find Lymangood’s stashed videocassette—advising her not to stop for anything or anybody. Kate gamely agrees to retrieve the tape, and deliver it to the TV station at all costs…

Note: Thus begins the movie’s final act, featuring some of the best helicopter action ever captured on film (yes, film; not digital video). Most of it is real, with French-made Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters cosmetically altered to appear as Blue Thunder. It pains to me to think how much of this movie would be soullessly rendered with computer-generated imagery these days…

“That’s gonna leave a mark.”
Former friends become current foes as Murphy is forced to shoot down Montoya’s chopper full of SWAT guys.

Within minutes, Murphy is joined in the air by two LAPD choppers filled with SWAT team members. Montoya tries to talk his former partner down. Realizing Murphy won’t give up without a fight, Montoya then orders the SWAT teams to open fire. The SWAT rifles don’t make a dent in Blue Thunder’s heavily armored hull. Murphy then uses his own gun turret to disable the lead craft, while the second chases him into the all-concrete Los Angeles River. Once there, Blue Thunder’s tight maneuvering causes its pursuing chopper to crash.

Note: The Los Angeles River is a famous movie location also used in 1954’s “Them” 1978’s “Grease,” 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and many other films.

Kiss me, Kate!
Kate goes all-in, and finds Lymangood’s stashed tape.

Murphy then locates Kate at the drive-in where the tape is stashed. Diving into the dumpster and rummaging through its garbage, Kate locates the bag with the tape. She then jumps back into her Chevy Vega and peels out, just as several police cars enter the drive-in’s bumpy asphalt landscape. Heeding Murphy’s words not to stop for anything or anybody, Kate puts the pedal to the medal, and manages to escape…

Note: The scene at the Pickwick Drive-In Theater is one of those many moments of the film that show Los Angeles exactly as it is, not glammed-up for the cameras in movies such as “L.A. Story” (1991), or the more recent “La La Land” (2016). The Los Angeles as seen in “Blue Thunder” is the scuzzier, seedier side of the city that my old man saw every time he drove to work. “Blue Thunder” is to Los Angeles what 1971’s “The French Connection” or 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham 123” is to 1970s New York.

How to make a full-size squad car fit into a compact parking space…

Kate’s escape is short-lived, as she’s stopped by another squad car on the freeway, which forces her to pull over. As Kate fumbles for her license and registration, Blue Thunder emerges threateningly from behind the police officers. As the cops are momentarily awestruck by the sight of the heavily armored aircraft, Kate uses the distraction to speed away. As the cops jump back in their squad car to pursue, Murphy uses Blue Thunder’s surgical targeting to saw the police car in half with precision gunfire.

Note: Aside from the aerial stunt work, there are also a number of effective ground vehicle stunts as well. The police squad’s bisection by gunfire is one of those showstopper moments. I’m fairly certain my jaw hit the sticky theater floor when I first saw it at age 16…

The Mayor (Jason Bernard) is just flooded with bad ideas.

The Mayor (Jason Bernard, playing a character loosely modeled on former real-life L.A. mayor, Tom Bradley) is in a strategy meeting to discuss what to do about Murphy’s hijacking of Blue Thunder. Braddock advocates for calm, while the military and Colonel Cochrane make a case to launch two F-16 fighters out of March Air Force Base, which can use heat-seeking missiles to “surgically remove (Murphy) from the air, like a tumor.” With few alternatives, the Mayor grudgingly agrees to the Air Force’s plan.

Note: I actually had the chance to meet actor Jason Bernard, in (of all places) the opening of a local Target store in my neighborhood, sometime in early 1992. I got his autograph, and we talked briefly about the making of the 1983 miniseries “V.” In addition to “Blue Thunder,” Bernard also played a USAF official in director John Badham’s “Wargames,” another hit movie from 1983. The last role I saw of Bernard was when he played the judge in 1997’s hit legal comedy, “Liar, Liar.” Sadly, Bernard passed away a year earlier, in 1996, making “Liar, Liar” his last film (a situation similar to Warren Oates’ involvement with “Blue Thunder”).

Fletcher (David Scheiner) pretends to be someone else, years before Chevy Chase did likewise.

Meanwhile, at the TV station, a breathless Kate arrives with the tape, and tries meet with TV newscaster Alf Hewitt (James Murtaugh), when she’s intercepted by an unexpectedly affable Mr. Fletcher, who pretends to be Hewitt’s producer in order to get the tape. When Hewitt arrives, Fletcher is forced to drop the facade, and pulls out his gun. The building’s security guard then leaps into action, and knocks a distracted Fletcher unconscious. The tape is in the media’s hands now…

Note: Nice to see the pensioner security guard spring into action. Wish I were so spry…

Highway to the Danger Zone

Meanwhile, the two F-16s are launched from March and close in on Blue Thunder. The lead fighter launches a heat-seeking missile. Blue Thunder parks near a barbecue restaurant, where the missile mistakes the kitchen’s heat signature for the renegade chopper. The barbecue restaurant is blown to hell, but not before its workers have a chance to flee into the streets…

Note: The sequence with the two F-16s is one of the few times in the movie where the use of visual and optical effects is a bit more obvious, but even so, the visual effects work done for the film is of very high quality, particularly for the pre-digital era of 1983.

Murphy uses the Union Bank building as protective over from an F-16’s weapons.
Not exactly protecting and serving the public, is he?

Blue Thunder is tracked again by the F-16s; once again, they fire another missile. This time Murphy uses the sun’s reflection on a skyscraper’s windows to trick the heat-seeking weapon. It plows right into the building, raining explosive shards of glass and debris onto the streets below (an eerie foreshadowing of 9/11). Murphy decides to stop the F-16s, before they can harm anyone else. Using Blue Thunder’s rotating gun turret, he cripples the planes, forcing their pilots to eject. Realizing that the USAF’s mad quest to stop Murphy is causing far more serious collateral damage, the Mayor calls off the operation over his city.

Note: One of my few nitpicks with the movie are the repeated shots of civilians somehow managing to run to safety in the nick of time, or some other unnatural avoidance of becoming collateral damage. Even the F-16 pilots are seen miraculously parachuting all the way down into curiously uncrowded L.A. surface streets. I get it; the filmmakers don’t want Murphy to be the ‘bad guy.’ However, given Blue Thunder’s impromptu hijacking, and the overkill means used to stop Murphy, you can bet there would be many fatalities—no matter how careful or selective Murphy was with his targets. It would be chaos.

Cochrane has zero damns to give as he blows up half of L.A. hunting for Murphy…

With the op cancelled, an adamant Cochrane illegally commanders a military attack helicopter and goes after Murphy himself. Given their parity in flying skills, Cochrane proves an even more formidable opponent for Murphy than the LAPD SWAT teams or the F-16s. Cochrane knows the vulnerable points of Blue Thunder better than most, and he immediately cripples her rotating gun turret—locking it in a fixed forward position.

Note: There are a few times when the actors’ lip movements in the cockpit don’t match the looped dialogue we hear (at all). Sloppy ADR work is hardly a dealbreaker, of course, but it’s a teensy bit distracting; like watching an English-dubbed Toho Godzilla movie.

A wounded Murphy goes full-on nuts and loops his chopper.

One of his Cochrane’s bullets pierces Blue Thunder’s cockpit and nicks Murphy in the shoulder. With damage to himself and Blue Thunder, Murphy realizes he’s leaking fuel, as well. With Cochrane firing into multiple buildings indiscriminately, Murphy realizes it’s time to put up or shut up. With Cochrane right behind him, he hits Blue Thunder’s turbines…

“C’mon, you tub of s#!t!”

… and proceeds to take the heavily-armored chopper into an aerodynamically ‘impossible’ looping maneuver. Pulling intense g-forces and pressure (with a wounded arm) Murphy screams in pain as Blue Thunder exposes its dark underbelly to sunlight, completing the loop. Slipping into formation right behind Cochrane, Murphy readies his forward-locked gun turret, and opens fire. A genuinely astonished Cochrane’s cries his last words; “That’s impossible!” The villainous Cochrane goes up in a fireball, as Murphy quips, “Catch ya later.”

Note: Contrary to Colonel Cochrane’s belief, it is indeed possible to loop a chopper; but it all depends on the make and model, of course: aerocorner.com: “Can Helicopters Do-Aerobatics?”

Was landing the copter on the train tracks really the best plan…?

Running out of fuel, Murphy has one more detail to take care of—destroying this deadly prototype chopper of his before it falls (back) into the wrong hands. As the sun sets, Murphy lands the spent, crippled ship directly onto the tracks of a southbound freight train. The heavy train smashes the copter into flaming bits, as Murphy walks away miraculously unscathed. We hear a newscast from real-life former KNXT Los Angeles newsman Mario Machado (“Robocop”) as he reports on the fallout from the aired videotape, which prompted multiple federal arrests, and a reopening into the death of Diana McNeely. Presumably, justice will be served…

Note: In keeping with the movie’s “big brother” motif, the final frames of the movie are converted into video resolution, as if Murphy himself is being recorded on a hidden security camera somewhere. There is also a dedication to the late Warren Oats after the credits. Earlier in the movie, you can also spot director John Badham in a cameo as a TV newscast producer working in the broadcast booth.

The End.

Meeting “Colonel F.E. Cochrane,” aka Malcolm McDowell

Flashbacks reveal Col. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) to be a possible war criminal, as well.

Occasionally at San Diego Comic Con, you have those rare encounters that you hadn’t counted on that turn out to be very memorable. Sometimes you encounter unannounced celebrities signing autographs at various vendor tables within the massive dealer hall, instead of the main autograph area upstairs. One such lucky encounter came in 2010, when I learned that the legendary Malcolm McDowell (“If…” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Star Trek: Generations,”) just happened to be signing at a memorabilia vendor’s booth. Given the actor’s massive list of credits, the toughest choice I had that afternoon wasn’t on whether or not to get the autograph; it was deciding on exactly which photo to have signed, given his considerable list of credits.

When I met him, actor Malcolm McDowell seemed to relish his bad guy image. It’s always more fun, right?

While most fans that day wanted signed photos from McDowell’s most famous role (the young, psychotic, Beethoven-worshipping ‘droog’ Alex, from “A Clockwork Orange”), I decided to have him sign a photo from his lesser-known role as a fictionalized, time-traveling version of author H.G. Wells in 1979’s delightful fantasy, “Time After Time.” McDowell paused and smiled when he looked at the image of himself in his character’s Victorian garb, on the streets of San Francisco. It was during the filming of that movie where he met his ex-wife, actress Mary Steenburgen. We had a quick but pleasant meet-and-greet, and I got my photo. Given the long line of waiting fans in the queue, I expected nothing more.

Summing It Up

With spectacular aerial stunt-flying, dire warnings about military/police overreach, and unflatteringly gritty views of urban Los Angeles, “Blue Thunder” was a dark horse box-office hit upon its release. The movie does for Los Angeles what “The French Connection” (also costarring Roy Scheider) did for New York City, painting an unflattering but accurate portrait of the city. The movie’s view of downtown LA is not pretty, but it’s real. This is not “LaLa Land.” Director of photography John Alonzo (“Chinatown,” “Star Trek: Generations”) uses handheld cameras for much of the shoot as well, giving the film a nervous, quasi-documentary feel that perfectly complements its sense of paranoia. In an age of heavily-filtered, CGI-laden digital filmmaking, this largely practical aesthetic is downright refreshing today.

Roy Scheider is Frank Murphy; the movie’s PTSD-suffering hero who is equal parts “Serpico” and “Dirty Harry.”

All the actors give their best. The late Roy Scheider is perfectly cast as Frank Murphy; an edgy, haunted, 1970s-style antihero, who was originally conceived as a much darker character. The writers stepped back from this approach, giving Murphy the more sympathetic goal of exposing the THOR conspiracy (despite the considerable collateral damage he inflicts). Daniel Stern (“City Slickers” “Home Alone”) plays the rookie observer Lymangood with credible naiveté; his character’s death is a real gut punch, too. Candy Clark seems to be saddled with thankless role of Frank’s off-again/on-again girlfriend Kate, but her character plays a vital role in the film’s final act. Malcolm McDowell memorably plays Murphy’s Vietnam War nemesis, Colonel Cochrane. Stealing the movie whenever he’s onscreen is the late Warren Oates as the acid-tongued Captain Jack Braddock.

Daniel Stern is officer Richard Lymangood, Murphy’s “JAFO” and lamb to the slaughter.

“Blue Thunder” also spawned a brief run of super-powered helicopter TV shows, with an ill-conceived, 1984 ABC spinoff series starring James Farentino and comedian Dana Carvey as generic versions of Murphy and Lymangood (renamed Frank Chaney and Clinton Wonderlove, respectively). TV’s “Blue Thunder” saw the super-chopper going on ridiculous “Mission: Impossible”-style assignments to imaginary foreign countries, and other such nonsense—eschewing all of the movie’s dark, political commentary in favor of mindless action. It was mercifully cancelled, soon afterward. A few notches above it was CBS’ “Airwolf,” starring Jan Michael Vincent, Ernest Borgnine and Alex Cord. “Airwolf” and its crew were closer in spirit to the cynical, world-weary characters of the “Blue Thunder” movie, until the show’s final season in 1987, when it was retooled (and recast) as a stock action-adventure show for the USA cable network.

Candy Clark dials up the spunk as Kate, the unquestioningly loyal girlfriend of loner Frank Murphy.

Most importantly, “Blue Thunder” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreaching surveillance technology and force-inappropriate military hardware falling into the hands of civilian police forces. While the movie’s heroes briefly flirt with the dangerous tech, the decision is ultimately made to destroy it. Murphy, seeing the broader uses for the machine, decides that we’re better off without it. Sadly, Murphy’s high-mindedness seems hopelessly naive today, since we know the contractors would simply deliver another such chopper, and the movie’s fictional world would align exactly with where we are today—overreaching surveillance technology coupled with an unchecked military industrial complex.

“Blue Thunder” is a raw, exciting, hard-R action thriller whose impassioned warnings have, unfortunately, come to pass in the 40 years since its release.

Where To Watch

1983’s “Blue Thunder” is available to stream on Crackle and Fubo (never heard of that one). The movie can also be digitally rented/purchased via iTunes, AppleTV, PrimeVideo, YouTube and Redbox ($3.99–$13.99). “Blue Thunder” can also be purchased on DVD/BluRay from Amazon.com; prices vary by seller.

Images: Sony, Columbia Pictures, Author.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Always food for thought how most cautionary films about dangerous technologies, mass tragedies or potential dystopias have seemingly failed to be heeded soon enough. Thank you for your review of Blue Thunder.

    1. Thank you for reading, Mike. Always appreciated.

      1. scifimike70 says:

        You’re welcome. I’ve shared this review with friends on Discord.

      2. Very kind, many thanks!

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