Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Blue Thunder (1983)

There was something about Roy Scheider that was just so damned likeable. I'm not really sure if he was ever playing anyone other than Roy Scheider (well, with the exception of Marathon Man and perhaps Romeo is Bleeding). In the majority of his roles he appeared to be a real guy thrust into some pretty extraordinary situations. I think it's because he reminded me of my father. He tended to portray cops in his pictures. My dad is a small town cop. In Jaws he was the police chief of a small New England town. My dad's the police chief of a small, albeit landlocked, New England town. Obviously, that's a very base comparison. They don't really look alike but they share many of the same mannerisms. A slight grimace when they walk. Exceedingly practical in their day to day lives. Hell, I even used to picture my dad as a passenger on the "Orca" with Quint barking out orders and Hooper...uhhh...being all scientific as my dad just took it all in. An observer at first until finally the situation dictated action. Of course, I imagined this, as a kid (just to be clear), all taking place on Lake Champlain, but was a nice image. Anyway, what Scheider accomplished onscreen in his many roles was certainly no easy task. He got the audience to relate to him, to like him, to pull for him. He made it look effortless.

His work in John Badham's Blue Thunder is no different. Written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby as a loose fitting update of George Orwell's "1984" and set in the far flung future released in 1983 so I guess that makes it a little bit ahead of it's time. The big brother theme is prevalent throughout this picture as the United States government has developed a helicopter designed for keeping tabs on the general populus. Blue Thunder comes fully loaded with turbine boosters, state of the art video and audio equipment, a thermograph, infrared night vision, and the ability to go into "whisper mode". Also, a pivoting machine gun on the nose that aims wherever the pilot turns (aims) his helmet. It's a wonderful design and, go figure, was actually built for this movie. No CGI. What?

The story follows a couple of L.A. (the city is never actually named, but come on) beat cops, officers Frank Murphy and Richard Lymangood (Scheider and Daniel Stern), whose beat isn't on the ground, but in the air. The picture begins with the partners patrolling an area of the city (in a regular chopper at this point) that happens to feature a nude aerobisizer who stretches in her highrise apartment, in the nude, every night at 10:30, like clockwork. She's really the perfect specimen as noted by Lymangood; "would you look at her tan? it's so....even." Unfortunately, they're called away from their peep show for what is announced as a "rape in progress" (I imagine that's the first time that's ever been used, I mean who the fuck would call that in...wouldn't you try to stop it?). The victim, a mayor's assistant working to curb urban warfare, is shot in the ensuing melee. She eventually succumbs to her injuries in the hospital. Was this just a random act of violence?

Into the mix comes Malcolm McDowell as U.S. Colonel Cochorane. Hilariously, he does nothing to hide his prissy British accent and thus comes across as easily hate-able. He's an old war "buddy" of Murphys (as we see in various 'Nam flashbacks) and, at one point, tried to have Murphy court martialed. Cochorane arrives to show off, and deliver for a test run, a new helicopter prototype known as blue thunder. There's a great scene where Cochorane tests the thing in front of a captive audience. A fake town is set up with red dummies (bad guys) and white dummies (good guys). Cochrone takes out the red guys with "near" precision and a government flunky feels the need to toot his own horn: "One civilian dead for every ten terrorists....that's an acceptable ratio." Sheider, without missing a beat: "Unless you're one of the civilians."

Originally, Blue Thunder was going to be a Taxi Driver-like story about a pilot driven insane and terrorizing the city from above. I would have loved that picture. Still, I dug this one. A whole hell of a lot. The aerial photography in this thing is flat out amazing. How often do you see actual dog fighting between helecopters? I suppose it could be done today but it would be all CG. I loved the stunt flying in this one. The camera movements. The fact that Blue Thunder uses a move that Tom Cruise used in Top Gun, that inverted G thing or whatever, and this movie came out a few years earlier. Of course, that move is likely impossible in a helecopter but who gives a shit?

Scheider, like I said, is good in this thing. It's not a showy role by any means (his roles rarely are) but he adds just enough humor and subtlety to keep us interested. It's a small thing, but I love the way he interacts with children. There's genuine love there (and no, I'm not referring to something inappropriate you sick bastards). His character in this is a bit unbalanced (some war wounds never heal) and I liked how he brought himself back to sanity using his stop watch. It was a nice touch. McDowell is a motherfucker. Hate, hate, hate the fuck. He prepares for a little game of "follow the leader" (with him in blue thunder and Scheider and Stern in a regular copter) by unscrewing what I'm sure is a pretty important screw on Scheider's bird and then calling in their subsequent crash as he's yawning: "chopper down (yawn) somewhere in the Watts area". I also wanted to punch him viciously in the nuts everytime he said "catch you later" while pointing his finger as if it were a gun. The performance I absolutely adored in this thing was Warran Oates as Captain Jack Braddock. Oates is slowly, but surely, becoming one of my favorite actors. The guy just flat out knows how to deliver a standard line and make it something great. Like, for instance, when he tells Stern "you're supposed to be stupid son. don't abuse the privilege." Sadly, this was his final performance but I think he can be proud of his work here. What a great voice he had.

I think the fact that I've barely touched on the plot is an indication of how good this picture is. Let's just say that a certain murder touched on earlier ties in with a certain British windbag and a certain blue thunder helicopter program. The movie has several tense moments including a prolonged aerial battle between blue thunder (piloted by Scheider) and a couple of horrendously inaccurate F-16s. Out of all the other helecopter movies/tv shows of the early 80s (including "Airwolf" and "blue thunder" the series) this is, by far, the tops.

We're winding down our 80s action month and a half or whatever. I've got a couple more reviews in the pipeline. Fuck, why have I been focusing on the good action shit? Haven't even touched on Schwarzenegger or Stallone yet (though I did watch Cobra but, while I liked it, I just couldn't motivate myself to write about it). I'm also planning on attempting some sort of "ten best" and "five worst" lists for 2008 but that's going to be a fucking chore. You know it's been a terrible year at the movies when the latest Bond film, Quantum of Soul-less or whatever, could possibly make both lists. Fuck, I can't wait for 2009.


Beepy said...

I'm looking forward to your Best Of and Worst Of lists. That's my favorite part of December. Lists-yum.

elmo said...

Yes, can't wait for the lists.