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Blue Thunder

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Blue Thunder
cast: Roy Scheider, Candy Clark, Warren Oates, Malcolm McDowell, and Daniel Stern

director: John Badham

109 minutes (15) 1983
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray Region B retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Tony Lee

Even considered alongside such iconic 1980s' thrillers as Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard, this borderline sci-fi offering from director John Badham is one of the best actioners of that decade. What makes it special is that, simply put, Blue Thunder is the greatest helicopter movie ever made (and I know because I've seen them all). Filming airborne combat in the skies of Los Angeles was unheard of at the time, and this film's mix of stunt-flying on locations, top-quality miniature effects work involving radio-controlled models, and set-piece spectaculars, which swoop all the way from tower-block peaks down to ground zero, proved a winning combination for memorable 'rotary action' cinema - that has rarely been matched and is yet to be surpassed.

Written by Alien scripter Dan O'Bannon, this stars Roy Scheider (The Seven-Ups, Jaws, 2010, The Men's Club, 52 Pick-Up) as Frank Murphy, a Vietnam veteran who checks his sanity with his wristwatch, selected as test pilot for a prototype hi-tech gunship and gadget-loaded flying-surveillance platform, on loan to the LAPD Astro Division (a fictional department, though actual L.A. police helicopters used by this production) for trials in the field. Like all maverick cops in 1980s' movies, Murphy is in trouble with his desk-bound superiors for reportedly-crazy antics on the job, and is overdue for a psychiatric review, but he's being protected from investigation by his friend and immediate superior Captain Braddock (the great Warren Oates in his final big-screen role). With his marriage to faithful Kate (Candy Clark, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Q - The Winged Serpent, The Blob remake) crashing despite the currently-separated couple's best efforts at patching things up, Murphy seems to be cracking under the pressure, that's heightened when "old war buddy" Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell, oozing smarmy menace) comes along, reluctantly permitting rebellious Murphy to fly the military's super-helicopter 'Blue Thunder' when our unwitting hero is reassigned by the mayor's office.

Teamed with rookie Lymangood (Daniel Stern, Leviathan, Little Monsters, Home Alone, City Slickers), Murphy's inate curiosity and growing paranoia get the better of him when he discovers crooked Cochrane's secret plans to win consent for using Blue Thunder as a tactical weapon against suspected terrorists, or anyone else who gets in the way of the ambitious T.H.O.R. project. Murphy, of course, is prompted to 'hijack' the super-weapon to prevent its unfair deployment against civilians, and is flying against the clock to deliver incriminating video evidence against Cochrane to the respected reporter of a TV news station, before hoodwinked local authorities organise use of deadly force against Blue Thunder and 'renegade' pilot Murphy. As expected, the film culminates in an impressive series of airborne battles, against Cayuse (Hughes 500) attack helicopters and a pair of F-16 jet fighters, which light up the sky with gunfire and litter the streets with debris from exploded buildings.

Blue Thunder is a film very much of its time (where cheerful supporting characters get away with shameless lines such as "What it is!" without a hint of irony), and yet there's a timeless quality much in evidence that remains perfectly attuned to varied ongoing troubles in America, from everyday social anxieties to urban panics, even today. Here we find all the carefree and radical stuff that (still) haunts modernity packaged into a superbly constructed techno-thriller with a sophisticated machine-character at it core. There are shadows of Orwell's fascistic 'Big Brother' from 1984, nuclear terrorism and teenage-hacker concerns of Badham's next film WarGames (also released in 1983), genuine civil unrest over heavy-handed policing for 'crowd control' during the forthcoming Olympics in Los Angeles (this last is very cleverly incorporated into the film's plot), fears of psychotic foreign hijackers and crazy ex-marine snipers, media moguls recklessly blurring the lines between television news and showbiz - merging formats as shallow 'infotainment' (making the honest truth out there more elusive than ever), and - with the decade's schedule of space shuttle missions launching classified DoD payloads - we take note of the public's renewed mistrust of right-wing power upon facing the onset of US government-mandated 'surveillance culture' enabled by a whole new generation of spy satellites. All these familiar genre tropes and real-world political references are skilfully evoked, then re-examined, turned upside down/ inside out and given a good shaking.

As airborne action cinema, Blue Thunder out-flies Clint Eastwood's Firefox, and predates Airwolf (essentially, a successful hybrid of Firefox, and Blue Thunder - which actually received its own short-lived TV spin-off series), and the filmmakers commitment to creating realistic birds-of-prey style action sequences ensures this amazing picture has the most exhilarating helicopter aerobatics and dogfights ever produced.
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