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Blue Thunder Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Blue Thunder Review

    “This ship is equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimetre electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a sh*t-storm in anybody's language!”

    Director John Badham scored two big hits in the 80's for the high-concept, anti-authoritarian lobby with WarGames and, this, Blue Thunder. Both took the still-popular paranoid stance that the US government cannot be trusted, and both were pinnacles of techno-suspicion. Whilst WarGames remains a perennial cult item - combining, as it does, computer hi-jinx, gaming and that delightful family favourite theme of global thermo-nuclear war - I much prefer this airborne actioner with Roy Scheider, Malcom McDowell, Candy Clark and great Warren Oates in his last ever film appearance.

    When a super new combat helicopter, codenamed Blue Thunder, is developed for anti-riot, covert surveillance and counter-terrorism tactics, ostensibly to safeguard the 1984 Olympics, a whole seething can of worms is opened when a renowned LAPD pilot uncovers the evil government plot that is at work behind the scenes. Smelling a rat when an inquisitive local councillor is murdered after an alleged "robbery" goes wrong and using the craft's extensive hi-tech eavesdropping gadgetry (audio, visual, thermographic and an on-board computer database make this the perfect spy-in-the-sky) to find the evidence he needs to sink the vile conspiracy, he is forced to use Blue Thunder to not only deliver it, but to fight for his life when the shady organisation decides to take him down. Pretty soon, LA becomes a battlefield as some of the most outrageous aerial stunts line up to take your breath away.

    Blue Thunder is, in many ways, similar to the high-velocity Clint Eastwood thriller, Firefox, which was released the year before, in 1982. Based on Craig Thomas' bestselling novel, this ambitious, but really rather dull suspenser, dealt with a neurotic US pilot (Eastwood, who also directed and produced the film), equally haunted by his experiences in Vietnam as Blue Thunder's twitchy test-pilot, who goes on to steal a telepathically controlled super-fighter from the Russians and engages in some pretty naff-looking airborne skirmishes realised by the normally extremely reliable John Dykstra. But whereas Firefox was critically mauled and brought down, if not in flames, then in no some small amount of embarrassment, Blue Thunder rode high and relatively unscathed on its gadget-and-hardware novelty by successfully intermingling its 1984-style scare-tactics with an almost non-stop procession of amazing aeronautical stunts, nefarious cover-ups, political scandals, assassinations and the whole Vietnam guilt-trip. Even going on to spawn a lamentable, and short-lived TV series spin-off, with James Farentino at the controls, as well as the obvious rip-off of Airwolf (great theme-tune, lousy performance from bland-superstar Jan Michael Vincent), and its slipstream also helped Badham launch the more successful WarGames.

    “He checks his sanity with a wrist watch!”

    “What do you check yours with, a dipstick?”

    Roy Scheider tops the bill as the police-pilot tasked with putting the new battle-bird through her paces. As Frank Murphy, the late character actor (Jaws, The French Connection, All That Jazz) initially doesn't seem quite right sitting in the cockpit of a chopper in his flight-suit, helmet and Ray Bans, and this is partly because he doesn't seem to be taking it all that seriously, himself. Checking his reflexes via a stopwatch and making snappy little retorts with the odd clown-like smirk thrown in for good measure are slightly heavy-handed ways in which to paint his left-field, antagonistic air-pro but, by the time he's taken novice flyer Officer Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern) out for his first aerial jaunt - finding decoratively flexible nudes parading in their windows just being part of the job, Ma'am - Scheider's loose canon has certainly grown on you. Murphy is the typical renegade with the conscience-addled past, and Scheider isn't able do a great deal in terms of adding much in the way of emotional texture to him that we wouldn't see done much better with Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs or, of course, Stallone's Johnny Rambo. But Murphy is merely a comic-book cipher, the aggrieved weapon in the good guys' arsenal. He may be a touch loopy, but he is a stand-up guy, and when the brown stuff hits the fan - and it does so with spectacular results, I should add - he is the one who will rise above the stink. It is always hard to disassociate him from Amity Island's finest, Police Chief Brody, who is, as it happens, surely one of the best, most fully-rounded, thoroughly sympathetic and most three-dimensional characters that a genre film has ever produced, and it would become something of an unfortunate cross for Scheider to bear in that no other role he undertook was ever to be quite as good. Murphy's claim to fame is that he is the only pilot alive who ever took a chopper for a loop-the-loop, something that you just know he is going to have to perform all over again if he is to survive the intense dogfights that will come his way later on. The recurring 'Nam flashback, at first, feels a little contrived, but the more we learn of the incident, the more genuinely affecting it becomes. Plus, it comes to have vital ramifications to the situation that he faces here in the skies above LA. His relationship with Candy Clark's dizzy Kate is also quite touching and has a natural dynamic that embroiders it far more than the script, by Alien's Dan O' Bannon and Don Jakoby, would have had you believe.

    But Malcom McDowell is certainly strange casting. Although no stranger to unorthodox villainy, his unavoidable Englishness can't help but jibe with his US Army credentials, flying in the face of his placement within the covert group of government scoundrels who are behind it all. But he still works well as the refined and cold-blooded nemesis for Murphy's much more humanistic and reactionary sky-cop. With his pug-nose and arrogant sneer, he is, once again, the educated, upper-class delinquent that he once celebrated in Lindsay Anderson's tremendous If, only this time he has twin .50 calibre machine-guns to bully with. At around the same time as making Blue Thunder, he was also snapped up by Paul Schrader for his sexed-up remake of Val Lewton's classic Cat People and, once again, McDowell was wanted for his conceited, melodramatic intensity to supply a predictably icy character with slimy ulterior motives. Cochrane has a definite reason for his animosity towards Murphy and the plot makes sure to allow them plenty of sparring matches and a final cathartic showdown. Terrified of flying, McDowell acquitted himself so well behind the joystick and controls of his aircraft that there is not the slightest hint that as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, he would thrust his head between his legs to pray for a safe landing in-between bouts of severe nausea. His cocky Cochrane-isms of “Follow my leader” and “Catch yer later” really do aggravate, as they are supposed to, but his sarcastic report of Murphy's aircraft going down during a familiarisation flight “somewhere in the ... Watts area” is beautifully done in-amidst a smugly superior yawn of disinterest.

    As the rookie (or JAFO as such mocked newbies are known in the Astro Division) Lymangood, Daniel Stern is immensely likeable. Humorous and genuinely good-natured, Stern is a much better actor than his resume would have you believe. Although he is inevitably overshadowed here by Scheider and the other heavyweights, he brings a touching sense of doomed camaraderie to the role. Only a couple of years later he would provide a performance that would dwarf the entire low-budget exploitationer C.H.U.D (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers - great title and a daftly enjoyable movie all round!) as the crusading soup-kitchen owner looking for his missing customers, before gaining his most recognisable role as Joe Pesci's partner-in-crime in the slapstick hit, Home Alone. Like most movie-canines in such films, his young and eager-to-please Lymangood is much too loyal, loveable and gullible to survive, but he also adds a little touch of heart to the proceedings and that all-essential desire for justified revenge. Warren Oates, too, is at the tender centre of the film - which is a little surprising when you consider the years he spent playing hardened, embittered, amoral rogues like those seen in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. In the making-of, everyone speaks very highly of him and his final performance here as Murphy's gruff, but protective boss, but the actor was ill when he made the film and even if it doesn't show on his face, it comes across in a weary, toned-down and slightly reluctant manner that is altogether too nice for the normally outstanding Oates.

    I've always had a thing for the cute and ditzy pixie-babe Candy Clark. After a revealing appearance in the Michael Winner version of The Big Sleep, she became something of a stalwart in genre pictures - Larry Cohen's weirdly wonderful Q-The Winged Serpent, Amityville 3-D, Cat's Eye and the remake of The Blob - but she has always had a fiercely indie-appeal, perhaps cultivated by early turns in Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth and, of course, Lucas' American Graffiti. But she is amusingly adorable as Murphy's devoted squeeze. Badham even ensures that she is put through her paces in the action-stakes, as well. In a sort of Star Wars-lite dual battle, she has to navigate her way around the city at high speed, evading cops and evil agents whilst her man dogfights across the skies above. It is also worth mentioning that Badham - who actually sat, terrified, beside her as she careered around downtown LA - makes these sequences just as exciting as those whirling about a couple of hundred feet above. On a slightly indulgent note, one particular shot of her attempting to climb from a dumpster stuck in my young teenage mind for a long time - and, hugely conveniently, the retrospective 3-part documentary on this disc sees fit to even blow-up a freeze-frame image of it! Cheers for that, guys.

    “One civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That's an acceptable ratio.”

    “Unless you're one of the civilians ...”

    John Badham started out by helming TV shows and has, perhaps inevitably, drifted back into such a career. But, in-between, he has come up with some gems for the big screen. Saturday Night Fever put his name on the map, and this was quickly followed by a film that I still admire - although many like to dismiss it - in the 1979 Frank Langella version of Dracula. Alongside the double-whammy of Blue Thunder and WarGames, he then handled comedy hits Stake Out and its sequel, Mad Mel's daft caper Bird On A Wire and the cool James Woods/Michael J. Fox satire The Hard Way. Badham is similar to the more action-orientated Peter Hyams, in that he delivers solid, well-heeled movies that bag big stars and successfully transform wish-list scripts into bankable, cult favourites, scoring the odd mega-hit but, more often than not, toiling away on projects that tend to loiter just beneath the radar. Hard-working and devoted to his craft, it is a shame that he has not been able to become more highly regarded. In Blue Thunder he tackles an entirely new genre from those that he had cut his teeth on and his adroit style is totally in evidence and his dedication for speed and excitement never found wanting. Tony Scott's Top Gun wasn't too far away, but Badham and his second unit team of stunt-flyers, co-ordinators and cameramen do a much finer job of putting us in the air alongside the action, and, hey, they do it all above a city. For real.

    “Grab your ankles and kiss your ass goodbye, Jafo. We're going down!”

    The helicopter, itself, is a supremely ugly vehicle. Seen side-on, the Aerospatiale SA341G Gazelle, which was built in 1973 and once used by a mining company before Columbia bought it, looks ungainly and ramshackle - altogether too long and with lots of unnecessary add-ons bolted onto it in higgledy-piggledy fashion. But, when observed head-on with its nose dipped-down, there is a certain coolness and a semi-iconic silhouette created that begins to make you admire its intimidating, insectoid appearance. Indeed, there are many shots during the frantic and relentless final act when the vehicle looks organic and alive. Just look at the scenes when it is hiding in a bulbous hover behind buildings, or playing some incredible cat-and-mouse games with the F-16 fighters and Cochrane in his angry little 'copter. There is a terrific moment when Murphy swings around a building in the foreground whilst Cochrane, on the sniff, slides around the back of it at the rear of the image, the two going in opposite directions, that looks simply breathtaking. I'm not sure about the use of high-rise office blocks as cover from missiles, though, but, then again, if you were the one those missiles were heading for, I can't imagine that you'd think twice about it, either. You may also receive a shudder or two when you watch the crowds in Century City panicking at the thought of a madman wheeling about the skies above them. In light of the terrorist atrocity at the World Trade Centre eighteen years later, this angle now seems like an uncomfortable foreshadowing of what was to come.

    Such great set-pieces as the cascading rain of barbecued chickens - cooked a little more than usual by the impact of an Air Force missile - and the incredible high-speed pursuit down LA's storm drains, with helicopters narrowly missing the concrete struts of the many bridges ramp up the excitement, Badham adding barnstorming episodes, one after another. Once those canons start spinning and belching hot lead, there's just no place to hide, as the F-16 pilot discovers when he gets a wing blown off, and the cops are forced to concede when they end up hurtling down the road in just the front half of their cruiser. The disused industrial site that gets chopped to pieces may seem a little tame compared to the city streets that came before it, but this battlefield still offers such extravagantly mounted mayhem that its relative isolation is easily overlooked. Badham's movie becomes the ultimate helicopter demolition derby.

    “You're supposed to be stupid, son. Don't abuse the privilege.”

    While Bernard Herrman and various other earlier composers had experimented with unusual and experimental sounds, it was, arguably, John Carpenter's synth-noodlings that brought electronic scores to the mainstream. Quickly afterwards, the likes of Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Silvestri would find the most successful ways in which to marry electronica with the symphonic orchestra to create a sound that was unique, vibrant and new. Snuggling into this vogue, composer and regular collaborator with John Badham, having scored his Whose Life Is It, Anyway? and going on to win acclaim with his subsequent music for WarGames, Arthur B. Rubinstein provides a terrific score for Blue Thunder. Rousing, exciting and bristling with metallic action cues, his music soars and pulsates. Although obviously spawned in the early 80's, his work here is far less playful and dated than his score for WarGames, which he commenced almost immediately after Blue Thunder's debut. Working almost entirely with the Synclavier II system, his music is robotic, angular and machine-like. But, like the ruthless government-sanctioned killers, it helps to paint the picture of an Orwellian future of emotionless Big Brother watchdogs. On the original vinyl album for Blue Thunder, there were apparently hidden messages of a “personal nature” that could be heard if the disc was played backwards - but I could never get this to work. I'm now without a turntable, but if anyone out there knows what these messages were, I'd love to hear about them. My money's on them being some kind of last respects to Warren Oates. Or even a love letter to Candy Clark!

    But, asides from that synthetic score, Blue Thunder has actually aged very well. This sort of plot is still being utilised today and the need for haunted heroes taking on a make-or-break mission is always going to be popular. The technology seen in the film may not have been in as much use as the ominous opening title message likes to inform us, but it most definitely is now in the post 9/11 era, and the prevailing sense of a noose tightening around our personal liberties does not seem at all far-fetched. In these terms, Blue Thunder was actually quite prescient about where we were heading. But it is the aerial action that keeps the film riding high. This type of hyper-kinetic combat was ground-breaking back in 1983, and, remarkably, it still hasn't been bettered by anything since that hasn't, ultimately, been CG-augmented. Plus, it is always great to see Roy Scheider kicking ass!

    Blue Thunder is big, dumb fun that turns your lounge into a war-zone. Highly recommended for fans of renegade rotors and explosive hardware. Some would call it a guilty pleasure, but I think it is much better than that.