The most interesting thing about Blue Thunder, I think, is watching 70s everyman Roy Scheider anchor the bells-and-whistles flash of an 80s blockbuster. Scheider’s appearance in Jaws helped usher in the bells-and-whistles era, of course, but he always belonged to post-Watergate hopelessness and stories of innocence lost. He was wry and yet weary, an honest Joe trying to do the right thing and gradually losing ground despite himself. Such a figure had no place in Reagan’s America, where superficial hope and can-do simplicity vanquished the malaise of the previous decade.
The battle in Blue Thunder is less between Scheider’s edgy police pilot Frank Murphy and his ultimate nemesis (Malcom McDowell), as it is between Murphy and the high-tech beast he’s asked to pilot. The titular helicopter is Rambo’s wet dream, bristling with all kinds of high tech doo-dads like stealth mode, infrared monitors and surreptitious listening devices. Also guns. Lots and lots of guns.
That’s problematic for Murphy, a traumatized Vietnam vet with plenty of issues left unresolved. It gets even dicier when he uncovers a standard-issue clandestine plot to use the chopper for nefarious ends. The sinister conspirators kill his partner (natch), forcing him to go rogue in order to bring down the bad guys. For some reason, lots of stuff gets blown up in the process.
The tensions between past and present shine through even in the basics of the plot; they’re hardly unusual for the era and actually became something of a specialty for director John Badham in the years that followed. He knows his way around an action sequence, and his skeptical attitude towards authority figures helps temper the rah-rah mindlessness lurking in the film’s corners. The chopper was supposed to counter terrorist attacks during the then-upcoming1984 Olympics, and the dilemma still feels strangely pertinent today. Do we give up privacy for security? Do we trust a government apparatus to protect us at the risk of being victimized by that self-same apparatus? Credit Blue Thunder for taking those ideas at least moderately seriously, even in the context of popcorn entertainment.
On the other hand, those musings belong to another period of filmmaking, one that didn’t sit well with the needs of the new one. For all its unease at authority, for all its mistrust of intrusive technological machinery, the film just can’t stay away from the cool toys. It drools over its helicopter like a ten-year-old at Christmas, relishing its Q-branch gadgetry and taking a special glee in watching it do its thing. In another movie, it might have been unleashed on those evil Commies in some far-flung locale (and done quite well on that level). As it stands, Blue Thunder holds a fetishistic fascination with all that power, and as much as it decries its misuse, it can’t help but glorify the potential.
The film’s central tension thus lies between its world-weary cynicism and its gee-whiz naiveté. I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. Watching it wrestle with itself over these issues can be quite fascinating, far more so than the sound and light show it superficially appears to be. That’s what makes Scheider such a fantastic choice as a lead. His Murphy definitely falls on the incredulous side of the equation, his hard-earned mistrust borne out despite the fact that everyone initially thinks he’s nuts. With him as our surrogate, Blue Thunder avoids succumbing to its own seductive temptations.
He also inoculates us to some of the film’s more ridiculous moments, particularly in the slam-bang finale which abandons all pretense of realism in favor of a Roadrunner cartoon. Again, that’s not strictly a put-down; merely another sign of a fractured identity which ironically becomes its most memorable feature. And even while Badham tries to wrap things up in a nice, neat package, the questions it raises still linger. We’re no longer as questioning as we were back then. We no longer posit the doubts and defiance that Murphy’s character expressed. In that sense, the bells and whistles really did triumph after all… leaving Scheider’s crusader all the lonelier as a result.