On a police helipad in Los Angeles, a new junior officer is assigned as an observer. He runs into his pilot, Frank Murphy, who is doing a self-test of his wits. The two of them get to know each other during their first air patrol, which features a robbery and shooting. The junior officer Lymangood coaxes Murphy to show him something special in Encino, and Murphy takes him to a posh mansion where a beautiful woman is doing nude stretching. Unfortunately, they were out of position to help a City Commissioner who was being assaulted by Hispanic men at her home. By the time they arrived, the Commissioner had been shot, and Murphy suffers a PTSD attack in the ensuing firefight with the officers on the ground.
When they arrive back at headquarters, their commander Captain Braddock chews them out for their behavior and grounds them. Murphy goes home and finds that his on-again-off-again girlfriend is there. They have a stilted conversation before she leaves. Murphy then heads back to the scene of the crime and finds a piece of paper that may contain a clue when he is called in by Braddock. Murphy meets with some Federal officials, and they take him to a military testing range. As they take their seats, a helicopter is heard approaching for a distance at a high rate of speed. Murphy is told its code name: Blue Thunder.
The lead sergeant gives a description of Blue Thunder’s capabilities as it tears through a simulated neighborhood with relative ease and untold ferocity. When the simulation ends, Murphy finds out the pilot of the chopper is his old commanding officer Colonel Cochrane. They are told that Blue Thunder will be tested over Los Angeles in preparation for use during the 1984 Summer Games.
Back in L.A., Murphy meets with his old flying buddy Montoya, and Murphy hands him the paper he found previously. Lymangood is given a new hat, and Cochrane sabotages Murphy’s chopper. They all go out for a test flight, and Blue Thunder shows how superior it is to regular police helicopters. As Murphy manages to stay with Blue Thunder, the sabotaged system finally collapses, and Murphy’s chopper careens out of control. Quick thinking on Murphy’s part saves everyone’s lives and minimizes damage.
Some days later, while Murphy’s girlfriend Kate enjoys an afternoon train ride with her son, Murphy meets Montoya and finds that the paper he took from the scene points to something big happening. That night, Murphy and Lymangood take a test flight in Blue Thunder and find that it has capabilities that far outshine any helicopter in every way, including surveillance. They put this to use when they tail Cochrane to the Federal building and tape his conversation. Although they gathered evidence that points to a conspiracy, they were discovered and Lymangood is killed later that night by thugs looking for the tape.
The next morning, Murphy, having received a message left by Lymangood before his death, takes Blue Thunder and has his girlfriend retrieve the tape. A police chase begins, with squad cars and helicopters engaged in combat with Blue Thunder, with no success. Kate gets the tape to KTLA, but is intercepted by Fletcher, a government agent. A fight with a security guard separates the tape from its case, and just in time as the erase code was sent to the case seconds later.
In the air, the US Air Force scrambles fighter interceptors, and Murphy uses the primitive heat sensor quirks in the Sidewinders to evade the fighter attacks. Murphy then shoots down one of the fighters and the other escapes. Meanwhile, Cochrane called in his own combat helicopter and takes off after Murphy. As Murphy watches smugly as the ejected pilot of the F-16 he shot down land safely in the city, Cochrane sneaks up on him and injures him. He also manages to severely damage the fire control system of Blue Thunder and the two of the fly through the city, with Cochrane staying with Murphy the entire time.
Murphy uses the superior power of Blue Thunder’s engine to perform a full loop over the top of Cochrane. Although Cochrane’s chopper is agile enough to stay with Blue Thunder, it does not have a powerful engine, and is still in mid-climb when Murphy comes down behind him. Murphy activates the cannon and blasts Cochrane out of the sky.
Some time later, with Blue Thunder’s fuel supply running low, Murphy sets the helicopter on the tracks and allows a freight train to destroy it. Murphy is seen walking away as he hear a news report that serves as the epilogue, detailing how the Mayor, having seen the tape that Kate delivered to KTLA, has detained the Government officials involved in the Blue Thunder project.
Review and Analysis:
This movie is part of the reason why filmmakers tend to hit the audience over the head with the polemics that they do. Much like the Watchmen comics were supposed to be a pointed commentary on the ridiculousness of many Superheroes from Marvel and DC, Blue Thunder was supposed to be a warning on both Government spying through technology and having the ability to declare someone and enemy of the state and killing them without trial or defense.
And, like Watchmen, many of the people who watched the movie never got that point at all. Instead, they embraced what happened in the movie at face value, and they wanted what Blue Thunder the helicopter had to offer. Reportedly, the US Military wanted a Blue Thunder-like design, and also wanted to promote the film by offering John Badham (the director) 20mm live ammunition for use in the Blue Thunder cannon. Badham declined the offer.
With the Blue Thunder TV series spinning off of this being nothing more than a pointless police action show, and Airwolf spinning itself off of the Blue Thunder concept, John Badham had little choice in the matter in how he would have handle his next project, Wargames. The WOPR’s last line of “The only winning move is not to play,” as well as David’s speech to Dr. Faulken at his home, comes directly from the experience Mr. Badham had with making Blue Thunder.
When is movie about a Concocted Race Riot not about a Concocted Race Riot?
When the people who would have been most affected by Project THOR (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response) are either shown as criminals, incompetent, or simply mentioned in passing.
Simply put, the underlying story goes something like this:
The United States government sends in a number of people of Latino descent to drive up the crime rates in “The Barrio.” With the numbers going up, the Mayor (who is Black) calls for a Task Force on Urban Violence. Councilperson Diana McNeely heads an investigation, and had often butted heads with LA Police Officials. The investigation would have closed with the usual calls for increased police presence and powers, but McNeely believed something to be not quite right. She received confirmation that crime was being deliberately agitated by outsiders for a nefarious government operation called THOR.
When her investigation took her into the Justice Department and the State Attorney General’s office, she decided to go public. Unfortunately, the government officials involved in the conspiracy found out about her discovery and sent 2 such “Ringers” to silence her. She was mortally wounded at the scene, and died shortly thereafter.
This would sound a lot like a powder keg waiting to go off, and in the hands of someone willing to take on a scenario like this, could have been a Do the Right Thing-level examination of stoking racial fears for exploitable gains. Sadly, Blue Thunder drops this part of the story once Murphy and Lymangood take off in the Blue Thunder helicopter for the first time. It may have been that there was too much to juggle in terms of story here, but, once again, People of Color are sidelined for bullets.
This storyline track jump may have been the reason why fans of Blue Thunder focus so much on the attack capabilities of the helicopter, rather than the message(s) the movie tried desperately to convey in the first half of the film.
Woman of Color, Refrigerated and Chilled:
Diana McNeely, who just happens to be only woman of color in this film, whose work is supposed to be the impetus of the entire plot, and the main reason why Murphy takes Blue Thunder and goes on his crusade, is killed in record fashion.
Changing Demographics, Changing Government Policy:
One of the rather interesting things about this movie is that it peeks into the idea of illegal immigration and its racist dog whistle as a magnet for crime. In this case, the fear is ginned up by the news media and government officials on all levels looking to establish martial law via the use of new policing powers and new weapons like the super-helicopter Blue Thunder. What was supposed to be especially scary is that Blue Thunder had surveillance capabilities that, in 1983, were unheard of in mobile or air tracking.
Looking back on the last 25 years, however, it would seem that both of these issues have taken hold within the American psyche (especially by those who call themselves Tea Partiers), and the debate has exploded thanks to the Arizona state legislature and Governor Jan Brewer passing a law called SB1070, which requires local and state police with “reasonable suspicion” to question anyone in which they have “lawful contact” their immigration status and demand proof of citizenship.
On top of this, the state of surveillance by Government powers has increased on all levels. Interestingly enough, thanks to laws like the Patriot Act, the Telecommunications Act, and the Military Commissions Act, all of the actions taken by the Federal Government in the movie would have been declared legal and just. That is, of course, is assuming that Murphy would have been able to do much of anything regarding his own investigation, of course.
If John Badham was attempting to warn the American public about the dangers of such things, it is obvious that those warnings went completely unheeded.
Swarmy Europeans, Again:
Malcolm McDowell has made a living in the United States playing sinister villains, and Blue Thunder is no exception. However, it seems a stretch to have a British commanding officer in the US Army Air Cavalry. I realize that Hollywood has been struggling to cultivate American actors and actresses as villains (when they are not people of color), but this casting choice was…odd, given the storyline.
Colonel Cochrane as played by McDowell was evil and swarthy from the beginning. He should have been a colleague that Murphy respected, and the PTSD event should have been Murphy’s attempt to forget what happened because he respected Cochrane.
Sega of the 1980s based many of their arcade games around the concepts of movies that were released in America. In this case, Sega took Blue Thunder the movie and made the arcade game Thunder Blade.
Mario Machado, who was an actual TV anchor at the time of filming, also provides his news talents as Casey Wong in the Robocop movie series.
If you happened to notice Kate’s car when she pulls up to KTLA, it has a big dent on the driver’s side roof and the exhaust is smoking a little more than usual, even for a Chevy Vega. This is because there was a stunt that was filmed for the movie, where Kate drives down a one-way street the wrong way, and she flips her car on its back…and then it flips back right side up. This was why Murphy says, “You’re really riding with the angels, sweetheart.”
It would appear that it was a stunt that was considered too dangerous for the movie to air (as it would probably make impressionable teenagers want to try the stunt for themselves), and the stunt was cut in the final print. You can still see it in the released trailer for the movie, however.
I have said that the movie the audience sees is more important than the movie the producers make. It comes down to interpretation, and John Badham and company overestimated the audience’s willingness to think for themselves and come to a conclusion similar to that of the writers. If you’re too subtle, is in this case, your point can get lost in the maelstrom of gunfire (see also, James Cameron’s anti-corporate control message of Aliens, if you happen to notice that in barrage of bullets and moments of faux Grrl Power, that is). Or, you can hit your audience in the head with a falling anvil (Stallone’s Rocky and Rambo movies come to mind), and have your point become utterly pointless once time passes by.
Watching Blue Thunder is not painful or mind numbing, but it seems like the movie was afraid of tackling any specific problems or issues, especially as they dealt with people of color.