I have an affection for Blue Thunder. It’s a subject I’ve previously talked about on this site in respect of its rivalry with that other super-copter Airwolf. You can find that particular piece here.
Back in 1989, I was holidaying in Florida when I took a tour through the MGM studios where Disney had a back lot. As the bus rounded a corner I saw a large pile of weathered and rotting props, among which where the spaceship from Flight Of The Navigator and a full cockpit mock-up of Blue Thunder.
Given how cool in places the copter looks in this movie, this was a pretty shocking sight, and it seems amazing that nobody in Disney at the time considered these items of more value.
Of course, it wasn’t the real chopper, because that had already been dismantled for spares, once the TV series got cancelled. But with the arrival of the Blu-ray I got a chance to relive the awesome death from above that pre-dated the armoured assault choppers that we now consider conventional.
This movie has a very strange feel to it, like it was written to be a TV movie and then someone stumped up for it to have a bigger budget and a headline star. It’s also curiously bi-polar in how it feels about Blue Thunder and its technology, and into that mix they’ve also thrown in some social conscience about post-traumatic stress and the legacy of Vietnam for many American combatants.
Roy Scheider plays Frank Murphy, an ex-Vietnam pilot now flying for the LA police department, while having flashbacks about some unfortunate experiences he had while serving his country.
By way of an introduction he takes onboard a new observer, and he experiences all the good and occasionally bad things about that job. This is typical of cop/buddy TV shows where the hard-bitten rogue cop is given a greenhorn with which to explain what he’s about and how he’s at the top of his particular food chain.
They then gets dragged into a project called THOR, which is a helicopter gunship designed to quell riots which, with its 20mm chain gun, it certainly can. However, all this subterfuge about military helicopters being tried on the police is something of a smokescreen for a plan to kill ‘undesirables’, which, to be honest, could be done much more easily and without the numerous bystanders inherent with using Blue Thunder.
It all comes to a head when Murphy uses the super-secret ‘whisper mode’ to listen into a conversation between corrupt federal and military people and he and his ugly helicopter become dispensable.
The person they dispatch to eliminate him is Col. F.E. Cochrane, played by Malcolm McDowell, who conveniently for the plot, is also the man responsible for Murphy’s reoccurring nightmares from ‘Nam. They have an aerial battle above LA, and despite being damaged, Blue Thunder trounces the opposition.
It’s the plot of a dozen TV movies, admittedly, with a chopper that’s just not been painted to be different. But there are a couple of things in here that elevate the whole thing well above that level.
The first is the flying in here, which is quite wonderful, and given the restrictions on flying above major cities these days is never likely to be repeated. The pilots in the Hughes 500 and Blue Thunder take their chase down to 10ft above the streets of LA, and make sharp turns into side roads like they’re in a car. Some of these manoeuvres are breathtaking, and one can only marvel at their skills.
That’s one good reason to watch this, but there is another in the entirely principled ending. Having won, Murphy takes the beautiful Blue Thunder, and as he doesn’t believe in her civilian use, he parks her directly in the path of a locative train. It’s not the cop out ending the majority of the film prepares us to accept, and one that I found quite shocking when I first saw the film.
There are also some charming if slightly phoned in performances from the cast. Warren Oates turns up to play the same annoyed person, this time called Capt. Jack Braddock, that he did for almost all his film career. He has a natty line in verbal abuse, and chews everyone out for almost no reason. Murphy’s rookie observer is played by a heavier than we’re accustomed to Daniel Stern, before he joined Joe Pesci in taking pratfalls for Macaulay Culkin. He’s not remotely funny in this and it probably convinced him that serious acting wasn’t for him.
Another notable mention must go to the director John Badhan, who made this right before he took over on Wargames. To be honest, it’s not as remotely well directed as Wargames or Short Circuit, but it’s workmanlike. There are a few nice touches however, especially the insistence on having Roy Scheider actually in view during some footage shot from Blue Thunder in flight. It gives the proceedings some credibility about what you’re are actually seeing and what he’s experiencing.
Where it isn’t great is in the grain constancy between shots, which is horribly exposed by the Blu-ray presentation. Some of the night time flying back projected interiors are so nasty that I’ve seen better results from 8mm.
Thankfully, most of these scenes are relatively short, and much of the external flying footage looks considerably better. Some of the effects are nasty, but most of the final battle is real helicopters flown by people who really know how to make them cook!
There are some disc extras, most notably a documentary about the building of Blue Thunder that’s interesting subject stretches only eight minutes. A much longer and deeper exploration of the movie is presented in ‘Flying with the Angels’, a 44 minute documentary that’s split into three parts. Plus, not unexpectedly we get the theatrical trailer. None of it is in HD, and it’s all been seen or heard before on the Collectors Edition DVD. The only Blu-ray specific material is the BD-Live functionality.
What I was really curious about was if, like the collectors edition, this transfer had the car stunt that has appeared in TV screen versions or not. I’d love to report it’s in here, but amazingly it isn’t!
That pretty much sums up the attitude that Columbia took with this movie, which was to get it out on HD without it costing much or taking any time. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve better, but it makes me wonder how other well-known productions from this era are likely to come off when they get a HD release.
Blue Thunder is an above average action movie from an era where CGI wasn’t an alternative to doing something crazy.