"Blue Thunder" (1983) spawned a TV series the following year, and though it was made for theatrical release, it plays a little like a TV pilot. Maybe that's because it's a déjà vu men-in-blue film that trots out all the cop clichés.
Roy Scheider stars as Officer Frank Murphy, a helicopter patrol officer for a nameless PD that's obviously located in Los Angeles. Of course we're instantly given the information that he ought to be grounded, though I can't pretend to understand the logic of the gritty cop who delivers this exposition: "Personally, I wouldn't fly with him for a bowl of piss Jack Daniels." Huh? Does that mean bad whiskey, or recycled whiskey? Either way, it sounds like a bad thing, and therefore makes no sense. Thankfully the rest of the script by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby isn't as insipid--cliched, yes, but stupid or unbelievable, no.
But let's count the clichés:
1) The lead cop is always slightly dysfunctional, either an alcoholic or near-certifiable loose cannon or crazy man. Murphy is the latter, a former Vietnam chopper pilot who keeps having flashbacks and nightmares. The guy still suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
2) The cop is usually romantically involved in a marginal way, often with an ex-wife in the wings or someone who just can't live with him because of his job and/or personality. Nice twist here in that the girlfriend (Candy Clark) is actually someone who likes him, though they don't live together. And in a further twist, she's also a little crazy. As she's driving, she misses her turn on a one-way road, and does a reckless U-turn and goes against traffic--just so the three of them (she has a kid) can ride on a kiddie train.
3) The partner is always younger and so new he's wet behind the ears, and probably a few places we don't want to know about. Same here, with Daniel Stern ("City Slickers") who has a good time as Officer Richard Lymangood. He reminds you a bit of Judge Reinhold in the "Beverly Hills Cop" films.
4) The cop and his partner eventually become close, but the screw-ups are contagious and the have to answer to a barking superior officer. "The old man wants to see both of you. Right now," one of the cops says as they enter the station headquarters. Now there's something we haven't heard before. In this case, the growling Capt. Jack Braddock is played by Warren Oates, whom you may fondly recall as authority-figure Sgt. Hulka from "Stripes." And speaking of "Stripes," the top-secret new urban assault prototype here is the Blue Thunder, a fully armored attack helicopter that's capable of precision strikes rather than routine strafing.
5) When the cop discovers a conspiracy, he has to race to expose them before they get to him. And in the process, an APB is put out on him, with the whole police force takes after him. Yep. That describes this film too, only instead of fleeing on foot or in a vehicle, Murphy takes off in the $5 million dollar helicopter.
6) And finally, the bad guy has a history with the good guy, and he's always another cop or authority figure. In this case, Malcolm McDowell appears as Col. F.E. Cochrane, who tried to have Murphy court-martialed in Vietnam, and has a pointed connection to those nightmares Murphy keeps having.
The clichés stack up, one after the other, but the action and plot picks up at the one-hour mark, when Murphy finds a crime-scene clue that cops missed. A city commissioner was killed, and she was heading a commission on violence.
Frank Morriss and Edward M. Abroms earned an Academy Award nomination for their editing, but the script itself is pretty bare-bones--so much so that even the Vietnam flashbacks seem like a token characterization rather than anything that actually gives us insight into Murphy's character. But Scheider is likable enough as the main cop, and when the action picks up it's easy to forget or forgive all the clichés. Be warned, though, that it's pretty sexist. The two cops get their jollies from hovering outside of windows and watching a naked yoga contortionist, or using the new helicopter's advanced camera system to look at the cleavage of a hooker from a thousand feet. "Blue Thunder" is rated R for no specified reason, but it's no doubt because of the full female nudity and language throughout. There are fairly exciting explosions and blasts and crashes, but really no graphic violence against individuals. But as the filmmakers admit on a making-of feature, this movie couldn't have been made post-9/11, because you just can't crash a plane into a skyscraper and get away with it. All of the action sequences are absolutely believable, and that pulls this otherwise overly-familiar movie out of the fire.
"Blue Thunder" is a 26-year-old catalog title, and it looks its age. There's quite a bit of atmospheric grain, and in bright exteriors there's also noticeable noise. The whole picture also looks just a little soft to me, though I don't think it's the fault of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. There are no halos on figures, and no visible DNR. "Blue Thunder" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audios are an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and it's about on the same level as the video. The sound is just a little flat overall, and curiously, in scenes when the bullets start flying, chopper blades start turning, and the sound usually cranks up a few notches, the distribution of sounds across the channels seems almost random, and the sounds themselves seem muffled in spots. Where you'd expect rocking bass, there's just a preponderance of mid-tones. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.
On the commentary track, director John Badham ("Saturday Night Fever," "WarGames") teams up with his film editor and motion control supervisor Hoyt Yeatman in what's mostly a scene-by-scene "here's how we shot this" play-by-play. There's a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects, but put in context with what's happened previously and since. Altogether, it's an average commentary.
The 44-minute making-of feature is new, including recent interviews with a grey-bearded Scheider and the director and others involved in the film. Oates died a month after they finished filming, and "Blue Thunder" was dedicated to him, but survivors turn up on this new two-part feature. It's above average, really, and would-be filmmakers can learn a lot from everyone's candid remarks. Director Badham gives a great deal of credit to his lead and secondary editor, saying, "An editor is one of the most creative people, and without a good one you are lost." He's just as forthcoming in other areas. When you shoot an action film you wind up with a lot of footage, he says, and he gave his editors 450,000 feet to work with. Other action directors shoot a million feet, he says. At another point, he reveals that "One of the tricks of shooting miniatures is that you have to shoot a lot of slow-motion, because that makes something that's tiny look really big." There's more, of course, but the point is that there's real substance here. Even seeing how two skyscrapers were constructed is an eye-opener. Why build facades from the ground up when you're only going to show the top 40 feet? It's not all technical. We get anecdotes too, as when we learn that McDowell was afraid of flying but got into those helicopters anyway, since everyone else was doing it, and bent over after each "Cut" to take deep, deep breaths.
The other bonus features aren't quite as strong. A 1983 promotional featurette is significant only insomuch as you get vintage behind-the-scenes shots, but it's so shallowly edited that everything seems like a glimpse, rather than a look. And "'The Special': Building of Blue Thunder: Making-of the Helicopter" zooms in on a balsa-wood full-scale model.
As a cop action flick this isn't bad, but it fits the mold so thoroughly that it feels more familiar than it should. The good news is that the action sequences are convincing, and while the first hour plays like a TV movie, the third act is all business.