No. 17: Blue Thunder

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As part of the process of watching the top 50 movies of 1983 for this project, I allow myself no research into the films prior to seeing it since I want to try my best to recreate the viewing experience of a 1983 moviegoer. I do, however, allow myself to watch the trailer for each film (most of which are available on Youtube or on the DVD as an extra feature). Thus far, no trailer has gotten me more excited for a movie than the trailer for Blue Thunder. It makes it clear that Blue Thunder is the kind of movie that made the ’80s great; unique and creative action, strongly defined characters and a great sense of humor.

After watching the actual film itself, I’m certainly not disappointed. If Die Hard represents an absolute perfect 10 in this genre, Blue Thunder falls at about a 7.5, which is definitely a great score in my book. It’s flaws are forgivable and really don’t diminish the entertainment value of the film at all (with one exception), and at the end of the day the ’80s Action Movie is not about anything other than pure entertainment value.

Roy Scheider stars as police helicopter pilot Murphy, a character with unique combination of being both a straight-laced, BS-free kind of guy as well as an unpredictable, borderline-insane wild card. As one fellow policeman puts it early in the film “Personally, I wouldn’t fly with him for a bull that pissed Jack Daniels.” Both sides of his personality make it clear that Murphy isn’t like the rest of those schmucks on the police force and that he is the only man on the force who is both smart enough to figure out what’s going on and bold enough to something about it. Scheider is absolutely perfect casting for this role and it reminds us that actors like Scheider, men in their 40s and even 50s who are still charismatic and believable action heroes, just don’t really exist anymore today.

Every action hero needs a sidekick and here we the audience of 2011 get a wonderful surprise in a young Daniel Stern as Lymangood, the wide-eyed rookie observer who serves as Murphy’s eager partner (Murphy of course seems quite annoyed with Lymangood’s enthusiasm at first but in the end comes to really care for the guy, you know the drill). Stern had just recently burst onto the scene with a role in the Oscar-nominated Diner the year before, for which he received a good bit of acclaim and attention. He’s remarkably likable and fits that archetypal action sidekick role just perfectly here.

Where Blue Thunder attempts to distinguish itself from other typical action films is really where it starts to go slightly off track. It’s a film that vaguely attempts to bring up some social and political issues but never really commits to them, probably a reflection of the fact that the screenplay was drastically overhauled from being a dark, First Blood-esque tale of an anti-hero gone mad into being a more traditional and straightforward action movie. As with the recently-reviewed Uncommon Valor, Blue Thunder attempts to draw on some of the national consciousness of Vietnam, though that is certainly less of a factor here than with Uncommon Valor. In this case, the only real connection is that Murphy suffers from PTSD and regularly suffers from flashbacks to a rather vague event that took place during his time in Vietnam that seems to have involved a Vietnamese man being thrown off a helicopter.

In addition to the post-Vietnam commentary, there are also some very passing references to civil rights violations, fears about mob violence and terrorism, the Munich Olympics massacre, racial profiling by the police, and the Posse Comitatus Act. When I say passing references, I’m talking about a single sentence. These are some deep and intriguing issues for an action film to be exploring…which is probably why they were ultimately stripped out of the final draft of the screenplay and ultimately disregarded as real motivating factors in the story.

Once the choppers start flying, not only is Murphy not concerned about the civil rights of the citizens below, he’s not even concerned with their safety. During the poorly-executed jet battle over Los Angeles, Murphy avoids heat-seeking missiles by using the smoke stack from a chicken plant full of workers as a human shield. Thankfully, we are given a couple of shots to indicate that the factory workers made it out OK before the factory goes up in a giant ball of flame and chicken. Even worse is Murphy’s second attempt to evade the heat-seeking missiles by directing them toward a reflection of the sun on the side of a skyscraper in downtown L.A.! The shot of the missile blowing a whole in the side of the massive glass-sided tower is more than a little disturbing for a post-9/11 viewer but it’s all fun and games here. The blatant disregard for human life is pretty much standard fair for an ’80s action movie but just a little bit more thoughtfulness could have prevented these scenes from becoming obstacles to our sympathy for Murphy.

When Murphy isn’t causing destruction and mayhem in the downtown area, the action is a lot less conflicted, a lot more fun and a lot better looking. The helicopter chase through the L.A. River is a fantastic example of what can be so right about ’80s action films. It’s not just comparable to a contemporary action sequence from a 2011 blockbuster; in many ways it’s better than the average action sequence today because unlike today’s CG-obsessed directors, Blue Thunder director John Badham did it for real. These are real helicopters flying real stunts. The results are amazing and spectacular even by today’s standards.

Probably the one real beef I have with the film and the only thing that actually brings the fun to a halt is the tremendously annoying girlfriend character played by Candy Clark. They make the terrible mistake of not only asking us to find her cute and charming (she’s far from it here) but also to believe that she’s actually capable of some ridiculous stunt driving when the time comes for her to play a role in Murphy’s scheme. Her scenes are the only parts of the movie where I felt more annoyed than entertained.

Murphy’s resolution to the plot is pretty ridiculous but it does at least leave us with a “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions” moment as the closing shot of the film. If you’re looking for anything more than fun, brainless ’80s action with a cool hero, a decent villain (Malcolm McDowell who appears to have no motive for being evil other than being British) and some incredible action sequences, look elsewhere. It’s not a smart film but it’s definitely fun.

Next Up: Al Pacino’s iconic cocaine & crime epic Scarface.