“We just came up with a mince pie under each arm!’ screams Warren Oates in one of his last film roles in John Badham’s techno-thriller Blue Thunder. At least he’s consistent with the fantastically salty dialogue that bears the hallmark of Dan O’Bannon, who previously pioneered the truckers-in-space idiom with his storied work on Alien. Blue Thunder is riddled with such ‘cabbage-crates over the Briney’ banter ‘Sunshine, I just blew your gizzard away,’ remarks Roy Scheider’s tough cop Frank Murphy in this slick, if morally confusing action thriller that delivers something pretty cool, even if it’s not quite what O’Bannon intended.
The original script for Blue Thunder seems to have been more of a First Blood number, with Murphy losing his mind while flying a top-class futuristic helicopter above a Los Angeles getting ready for the 1984 Olympics. Stretches of Badham’s movie still retain that idea, but some boiler-plate rewrites make Murphy a hero who has uncovered an establishment conspiracy along racial lines, with nefarious authority figures artificially creating problems in the Barrio to create an excuse for the use of the superior fire-power as ‘crowd control’ ie ethnic cleaning by stealth.
That puts Blue Thunder; the Movie in a tricky spot; despite dogfights, F16 heat seeking missiles and a rain of exploding chickens, Badham’s film makes great effort to show that no innocent bystanders are hurt, a grace note that seems increasingly ridiculous as skyscrapers explode into fireballs without a single casualty. But that theme, that technology is not to be trusted, and that having a technical edge in terms of weapons can be abused, feels very much O’Bannon, and the point is is well made when (spoiler alert) Murphy heroically, finally, drops the chopper in front of a speeding freight train. With great power comes great responsibility, and if no-one can handle it in a sensible way, their toys should be taken away.
So let’s put the philosophising aside and just enjoy the stunts; Blue Thunder just looks fantastic in widescreen, with Badham’s street energy from Saturday Night Fever meshing well with expanded action scenes; it’s nice that we get to see that Murphy’s wife (Candy Clark) is a crazy driver in an early scene, because there’s a long, extended action sequence that follows in which she dodges cops on the streets while Murphy protects her from the skies; it’s a shame they dropped the terrific car-stunt finale, although it’s still in the trailer below. Anyway, a combination of her sharp driving and his ariel know-how save the day, uncover the conspiracy, and the good guys win (spoiler alert).
Throw in Malcolm McDowell as a catch-phrase dropping rival (‘catch you later!’), Daniel Stern as a JAFO, lots of snazzy looking sports cars and a general mistrust of the military/industrial complex, and you’ve got Blue Thunder, a cool action film with location work that’s all the more striking in today’s green-screen world. Sure, it’s flawed as a political diatribe, but in terms of kinetic urban action in the air, it’s quite literally a perfect vehicle for the grizzled charm of Roy Scheider.