Blue Thunder: Special Edition
When it first hit theaters in 1983, Blue Thunder was meant to stir the Orwellian conscience of a nation. Instead, it resonated with young folks growing up in the '80s who enjoyed watching "Knight Rider" on TV. In fact, it's not surprising that a short-lived television series was launched the following year "The A-Team," "Magnum P.I.," and "Miami Vice" proved that you could build a show around hardware. However, even if Blue Thunder arrived just a year before George Orwell's fabled 1984, it actually says more about America post-9/11 than its own post-Watergate era. Roy Scheider stars as Frank Murphy, a senior pilot with the Los Angeles Police Department's "Astro Division," which conducts day-to-day helicopter operations over the city. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after two tours in Vietnam, he's rarely on the best side of his captain, Braddock (Warren Oates), while his relationship with girlfriend Kate (Candy Clark) seems to be breaking down. Things really fall apart after Frank is assigned a new airborne observer, Lymangood (Daniel Stern) on their first night, they miss an assassination attempt on a city councilor, which leads to both of them being grounded. Nonetheless, Frank's military experience soon has him assigned to a new, top-secret project: flying "The Special," aka "Blue Thunder," a military prototype developed by the federal government as an anti-terrorist tool to be deployed by the LAPD at the upcoming Olympic Games. An old rival, U.S. Army Col. F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), is expected to get Frank checked out in the ship. However, before long Frank and Lymangood discover just what kind of surveillance Blue Thunder is capable of, and how the government's "Project THOR" has nothing to do with fighting terrorism.
Despite its R-rating, the opening sequences of Blue Thunder play like '80s prime-time TV, complete with the cool choppers, the loner cop, the goofy sidekick, the suffering girlfriend, the grumpy captain, and central-casting bad guys lurking in shadows. The screenplay's fundamentals are so burdened with cliché that the whole thing threatens to collapse under its own weight. However, the film holds up, mostly because the plot is almost an afterthought, an excuse to deliver two hours of big-screen, big-budget entertainment. The script does have cerebral aims "A dozen of these 'copters and you could run the whole damn country" Frank says to Lymangood, which may have pricked the public's ears in 1983 but sounds almost prescient in an age when the government insists it should have free access to library records and overseas phone calls. In fact, it's a bit odd to realize that an action film like Blue Thunder planted its flag on the sort of privacy issues the nation would find itself seriously debating more than two decades later as played here, the debate seems far more abstract, in part because the privacy-violating technology is pure science fiction. The Special may have infrared cameras and computer uplinks, but it's still hard to fathom how its "whisper mode" could cut out the sound of its turbine engine, or how those nifty microphones not only could pick up conversations within glass-and-concrete buildings, but also overcome the sonic disturbance of the ship's rotor downwash. No matter. As a cinematic creation, Blue Thunder has become mildly iconic, a modified Aérospatiale Alouette with armament and stealth lines that gives it a vaguely insect-like appearance. Director John Badham also recruited a solid cast, including Daniel Stern and Candy Clark in supporting roles, Roy Scheider, who by this time had perfected his burnout cop persona after The French Connection and Jaws, and Malcolm McDowell as a wonderfully sinister Army Air Cav officer (who's inexplicably English, which somehow makes his performance better). And the legendary Warren Oates, in his last film role, proves his acting skill by taking line after line of bad dialogue and making it sound good. The film's third act is its most memorable, and even remarkable by today's standards the airborne duel between Scheider and McDowell over downtown L.A. is almost entirely done with practical photography, and even today's CGI advances couldn't improve upon The Special and a military-grade McDonnell-Douglas 500 playing high-caliber cat-and-mouse amidst the city's skyscrapers and the concrete confines of the Los Angeles River.
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Sony's Special Edition DVD release of Blue Thunder offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a very good source-print, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that effectively conveys the film's intricate sound-design, if also the somewhat dated electronic score. Extras on this release include an informative commentary from director John Badham and editor Frank Morriss, with additional comments by motion-control supervisor Hoyt Yeatman. Also on board is the in-depth three-part documentary "Ride with the Angels: Making Blue Thunder," featuring interviews with Badham, Scheider, and others (44 min.), the featurette "'The Special': Building Blue Thunder" (8 min.), the 1983 promotional featurette, which sells the film as an Orwellian vision more than a thrill-ride (8 min.), three storyboard galleries, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.