The Summer of '83: Blue Thunder -

The Summer of '83

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  • Starring: Roy Scheider, Malcolm McDowell, Daniel Stern, Warren Oates and Candy Clark
  • Written by: Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby
  • Directed by: John Badham
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures
  • Rating: R
  • Run Time: 109 minutes
  • Series:

The Summer of '83: Blue Thunder

"You're supposed to be stupid, son. Don't abuse the privilege."

By Rob Vaux     May 13, 2013

 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.  


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monkeyfoot 5/13/2013 7:59:29 AM

I remember seeing this in the theater with my brother. I thought it was cool at the time but my brother hated it. The last time I saw it it had also lost alot of its charm for me as well for pretty much all the reasons you pointed out. But Candy Clark's raspy voice is still quite sexy to me still.

That is a very good description of the onscreen persona of Scheider.

If the movie were remade maybe 10 years ago it might be all action and cool FX because that's what we want in this type of movie. It would be Fast & Furious:Helicopter Edition. But now in the past few years the world has become much more questioning of military and surveillance abilities again and I think it would be done with the same attitude now. Hopefully, the sillier parts of the plot would be smoothed out.

aegrant 5/13/2013 9:40:29 AM

 When I was 12 this was a cool ass movie... when I was 12... o_O

Higgy 5/13/2013 10:38:06 AM

I loved the TV show.  I liked the movie too, but this and Airwolfe use to be AWESOME!!!  And Knight Rider.

Man, they sure used cool vehicles back in the 80's.

redhairs99 5/13/2013 11:58:22 AM

So far, I don't think I have seen any of these flicks meantioned in the "Summer of '83" series.  Granted, I was 2-3 years old at that point, but I'm pretty sure I had seen everything listed in the "Summer of '82" series.

Wyldstaar 5/13/2013 3:06:11 PM

I first saw Blue Thunder when it was on the now defunct premium cable channel View at my best friend's house.  He'd told me about it many times, but it never seemed to be on when his parents weren't at home so I could watch it.  After months of anticipation, the planets alligned and I got to see the awesomeness that was Blue Thunder.  It was everything I thought it would be and more.  Not only a cool helicopter with lots of action, but a hot naked chick as well.  Seeing that beautiful machine blown to bits on the railroad broke my heart.

I also loved the TV show when it came out, and was saddened when it was cancelled.  In the wake of Blue Thunder, the Big Three networks each came out with a helicopter based program.  NBC had Riptide, CBS had Airwolf and ABC had the real deal of Blue Thunder.  Between the three of them, I liked Blue Thunder the best, which of course meant that it was immediately cancelled.

Doctor Who fans should note that stock footage from the film was used in the 2005 episode Dalek in which the helicopter was refered to as Bad Wolf One.

monkeyfoot 5/13/2013 4:23:21 PM

Airwolf was the greatest Man With Mach 1 plus Helicopter TV show ever made!

I still gotta have a son so I can name him Stringfellow!

Walker 5/13/2013 5:15:29 PM

 Other than Wargames and Jedi, there are not many genre classics out of this summer. The only reason to keep running this series is to make it to summer of 84, another big year.

TheSilentKiller 5/14/2013 9:23:35 AM

 Monkey - I was able to get away with calling my son Connor, but now I have a new goal to shoot for with the next 'un.

rvaux16 5/14/2013 5:49:22 PM

 We're running it because we got a really positive response ot the Summer of 82. I'm still kicking myself for not getting on this for the Summer of 81 (another classic). And yeah, 83 wasn't nearly 82 or 84, but we're hoping for some fun trips down memory lane regardless. :)

Moz72 5/14/2013 6:00:18 PM

considering the state of the nation today, terrorist attacks, civil disobediance, and government watchgroups, drones..., now is the perfect time to roll out a remake of Blue Thunder.   Just Another Fu#$ing Observer!              



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