When I was a kid, just like every other kid growing up in the 80s, I was obsessed with bad ass shit. Bad ass cars. Bad ass jets. Bad ass helicopters. Bad ass motorcycles. Bad ass spaceships. Bad ass heroes.
You get the idea.
Lucky for me, the movie and TV industry were only too happy to provide plenty of movies and shows to sate my need for…bad ass shit.
On the TV side of things were Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Airwolf, The A-Team, Dukes of Hazzard, and Magnum P.I. Hollywood gave us Iron Eagle, Smokey and the Bandit, Top Gun, Star Wars, Tank, Firefox, Blue Thunder, Commando, First Blood, not to mention a score of others. I still rewatch a lot of these movies from time to time, but some of them I haven’t seen in decades. Blue Thunder is one of those movies. I recently rented Blue Thunder (along with Rolling Thunder for a thunder double feature) from my local video store haunt and was pleased to find it had aged like a fine wine.
I doubt I could say the same about Iron Eagle or Firefox (not to take anything away from those bad ass movies about bad ass shit) were I to revisit them today (and I probably will at some point). But Blue Thunder, for better or worse, transcends just being about bad ass shit and actually manages to say something about the world. And what its saying is some pretty deep shit.
Blue Thunder is about a troubled Vietnam vet and L.A. helicopter pilot/cop, Frank Murphy, (played by Roy Scheider) who is asked to participate in testing an advanced, top secret military prototype helicopter nicknamed “Blue Thunder”. Along for the ride is Scheider’s rookie J.A.F.O. partner, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern). Murphy and Lymangood spend most of the movie flying around the city foiling crimes from the air and generally getting up to the sort of hijinks that would spawn a couple dozen think pieces on the patriarchy and toxic masculinity if it were released into theaters today. And it’s all pretty bad ass shit. But what Blue Thunder is really about is the surveillance state. You see, Blue Thunder isn’t just some run-of-the-mill attack helicopter. It’s a fully functioning surveillance tool equipped with infrared, video recording equipment, directional microphones for listening to conversations from a distance (even through walls), a built-in computer system connected to a nationwide database, and whisper mode. That’s right. Blue Thunder might just be the helicopter that inspired the Black Helicopter conspiracy phenomenon.But enough of that bullshit.
The military wants to test Blue Thunder’s surveillance (and more troubling) and riot control capabilities in the skies over Los Angeles, and apparently Murphy and Lymangood (by proxy) are just the guys to undertake this dirty task.
Now, don’t be put off. Some bad ass shit definitely happens. Buildings are blasted. Helicopters and F-16s are shot down. There’s plenty of sneering from serial bad guy and frenemy to Scheider’s Murphy, Malcolm McDowell, who, for some strange reason, is playing a Brit who also happens to be a Colonel in the United States Army. Blood is shed, and there’s a decent amount of collateral damage that the film hilariously glosses over, a pretty great chase scene, a creepy-looking henchman, some clever aerial battles with an obviously too-heavy helicopter prop, and the mother of all unnecessary 80s nude scenes (just so we’re clear: this isn’t a complaint) And the helicopter is pretty fuckin’ bad ass, too. But Blue Thunder is actually more of a thoughtful movie than you might remember. It takes its subject matter fairly seriously, and seems less interested in being just about bad ass shit like explosions and dismemberment than it is about having a hard conversation about war, the military industrial complex, politics in policing, and even racism.
Blue Thunder comes off as more of a movie from the previous decade than an 80s movie when it comes to pacing. There are moments of silence in between dialogue where the film gets to speak for itself and where L.A. emerges as a character in its own right. It’s a kind of time capsule, detailing urban sprawl, race relations, and inner city politics while at the same time managing to predict the importance of contemporary issues like the deep state, perpetual surveillance, and drones. But none of this comes at the expense of coherence or bad assness.
If you watch Blue Thunder with an open mind, you’ll come away with so much more than just explosions and disembodied appendages.
And if not, you’ll still get to see some pretty bad ass shit.