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Big Brother, On or Off?

June 22nd, 2010 · 3 Comments

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In the month of June, Joe Valdez “takes over” programming of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with a series of double features on his favorite film themes.

Here’s Part 2 of a bill featuring high tech conspiracies in L.A.

Blue Thunder 1983 poster Blue Thunder dvd

Blue Thunder (1983)
Directed by John Badham
Written by Dan O’Bannon & Don Jakoby and Dean Riesner (uncredited)
Produced by Gordon Carroll
109 minutes

There haven’t been many movies about the LAPD’s Air Support Division. That might be due to logistics, or maybe the best picture you could possibly make in that milieu has already been done: Blue Thunder. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was so incensed by the ghetto bird buzzing his L.A. abode that he was inspired to write a thriller — with USC Film School buddy Don Jakoby — about a Travis Bickle type going AWOL in a police helicopter above the City of Angels. Columbia Pictures loved the ballistic third act, the crazed lone nut in the first and second acts not so much, prompting rewrites in which the LAPD became good guys and government spooks were invented as bad guys. O’Bannon & Jakoby at the time lambasted the finished film, a box office hit that inspired two TV series in the ‘80s; Airwolf on CBS and the short lived Blue Thunder on ABC, one even cheesier than the other.

Blue Thunder is wound like a Swiss watch and designed with almost the same level of craftsmanship, briskly introducing us to Los Angeles, the rigmarole of the Air Support Division (dubbed “Astro Division” in the film to avoid hate mail flooding the LAPD) and issues of privacy on the approach to the year 1984. The action is set up gracefully and executed tenaciously, while a post-Watergate malaise gives the film an edge. John Alonzo’s lighting and Arthur Rubenstein’s electronic score were cutting edge for their time and hold up well, while the casting is superb. It’s easy to forget how strong a leading man Roy Scheider was, while the magnificent Warren Oates — in his final movie — chews up scenery like a buzzsaw. Director John Badham shot the film back-to-back with WarGames and was in a zone, fusing high concept, high tech, compelling characters and fun without crossing over into cartoon.

Blue Thunder 1983 title card

Maverick police helicopter pilot Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) breaks in a new partner, the baby faced Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern) who’s transferred over for some supposed peace and quiet in the haze above Los Angeles. While the men spy on a yoga practitioner in Encino known to perform in the nude, a city commissioner is attacked outside her home in Brentwood and shot. Reprimanded for his flight patterns by the loquacious Captain Braddock (Warren Oates), Murphy contends that the attack on the city commissioner was no attempted rape but a stakeout. A Vietnam vet compressed with PTSD, Murphy makes up with his oddball girlfriend (Candy Clark) and returns to the crime scene, where a memo he retrieves from the commissioner’s lawn has the cryptic word THOR written on it.

Assigned a special detail, Murphy accompanies Braddock and two feds to the demonstration of a prototype helicopter designed for crowd control in the Los Angeles ’84 Summer Olympics. “Blue Thunder” is equipped with a 20mm gun turret, turbine boost, whisper mode and surveillance devices that see and hear through walls. The test pilot is Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), a nefarious operator Murphy knew in ‘Nam. In an attempt to rub out his competition, Cochrane sabotages Murphy’s chopper. Staying alive long enough to take Blue Thunder for a test spin, Murphy and Lymangood discover the feds have big plans for THOR (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response), instigating social unrest in L.A. to justify military expenditures. Framed by Cochrane and the feds running the project, Murphy commandeers their toy and takes to the friendly skies.

Blue Thunder 1983 Roy Scheider

Blue Thunder 1983 Roy Scheider Daniel Stern

Blue Thunder 1983 Roy Scheider Warren Oates Daniel Stern

Blue Thunder 1983

Blue Thunder 1983 Roy Scheider Candy Clark

Blue Thunder 1983 Daniel Stern

Blue Thunder 1983 Roy Scheider

Blue Thunder 1983

Blue Thunder 1983 Roy Scheider

Blue Thunder 1983

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 147 users: 65% for Blue Thunder

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · Forensic evidence · Gangsters and hoodlums · Man vs. machine · Master and pupil · Midlife crisis · Military · No opening credits · Shootout · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Jun 22, 2010 at 7:03 am

    Always loved this movie.

    I recently got it on Blu-Ray and have been meaning to watch it again.

    Great choice.

  • 2 Tom // Jun 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    This was my favorite movie back in the summer of 1983 — even though it came out in mid May, just a couple weeks before “Return of the Jedi.” I have a feeling “Blue Thunder” might have even done better at the box office if released just a few weeks earlier. I miss smartly written R-rated action movies like this that didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. As a kid, I appreciated that I wasn’t being pandered to. “Blue Thunder” also probably would have been a PG-13 after that rating was invented in the summer of ’84. And, you’re so right about Roy Scheider being incredibly underrated. He is greatly missed. And why has a solid director like John Badham been relgated to TV and cable for the last dozen years? He was a master filmmaker compared to most of these CGI-loving hacks who can’t keep a shot on-screen longer than 2 or 3 seconds (Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, Peter Berg) of today.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jun 26, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Jim: Whenever I think of your DVD/ Blue Ray collection, the Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith finally has time to read all the books in the library comes to mind. Thanks for commenting!

    Tom: According to director D.J. Caruso, Eagle Eye with Shia LeBeouf was intended as a homage to John Badham, at least WarGames, so we can’t say that his style never influenced anyone. I thought one too many of his movies became knock-offs of Stakeout, which was never very good anyway. Badham has gone back to where he started, in television, but left behind a couple of classic films before he left. Saturday Night Fever still works for me. Thanks for commenting!

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