Sony // 1983 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // August 24th, 2009
Blue on Blu!
Many moons ago, I remember the thrill of going to Wal-Mart to hunt for DVDs in the $5 bin. Sometimes you found a gem in the junk, and I felt I found one when I grabbed that early copy of Blue Thunder. As with many DVDs in my collection, I'm not even sure if I ever watched the disc in its entirety. I'll give myself the benefit of the doubt and say I did once, but it's great to have a reason to see that wicked helicopter in action one more time.
Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider, 2010) is a helicopter pilot in the Astro Division of a police department. He's a bit of a renegade, maybe even a bit of a loose cannon, who is being watched carefully for any hint of mental instability. Yes, he does have some post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam, which comes to light in odd ways, but he's still an outstanding pilot. That's why he and his new, rookie partner, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern, City Slickers) are recruited into a semi-secret government program called THOR. This program wants to introduce an armed helicopter called The Special, nicknamed Blue Thunder, into the civilian sector. Frank is immediately wary as it's against the law to have armed helicopters in civilian use, and his unease builds when he sees a former associate, F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek: Generations), working on the project. Nonetheless, Frank agrees to join the project; and soon enough, Frank finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy; and he's in way over his head.
The true embodiment of a man's movie, Blue Thunder exudes masculinity and testosterone with each second of celluloid. From the action to the actors to the helicopter itself, you cannot mistake this movie for being anything else. And I love it. She (how odd to want to use the feminine in this sentence to describe the movie -- what irony!) throws back to those simpler days back in the 80s when it was all piss and vinegar, bluster and bravado. It's fun to let something so simple and manly just come right at you. Blue Thunder is not a great movie, but it is great fun.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: the chopper itself. The Special, or Blue Thunder, is a thing of beauty...on the outside. The crisp angles, sleek lines, and imposing extrusions just draw your eye. It screams power, prowess, and manliness. Men are fascinated by it, deducing its potential from its imposing silhouette. On the inside, back in its day, it was the shiznit. All those buttons, switches, knobs, and screens enticed you to want to learn how to fly a helicopter. (Today, sadly, some of that interior coolness has assuaged with the passage of time. But if you put a couple flat panels in there, added some blue LEDs...my heart skips a beat at the possibilities.) Blue Thunder was the epitome of cool tech. It was so cool that it inspired a television show, which could have lasted longer if they made an attempt to write good stories.
But we do have a decent story in this movie. It's the classic government conspiracy story thwarted by a good guy in the right place at the right time. No new ground is broken, but it's interesting enough to keep you watching. It's the right balance of plot, fluff, and exposition. Yet while the story may be fairly average, you have a few actors who make the experience all the more fulfilling. I've clearly forgotten how much I like Roy Scheider, and I've been recently reminded of how compelling a screen presence he is by watching this and 2010. I find him to be a quality actor; an actor who portrayed an inviting, everyman strength. He's approachable but embodies the right qualities to make you believe he can fly The Special or save The Leonov. Helping the cause is classic character actor Warren Oates, in his final role. He's Frank's no-nonsense boss, the guy that's always growling about the trouble Frank's causing him and the department. That role could have easily slipped into farce and caricature, but Warren kept it fresh and interesting. (Just listen for his fudgesickle line.) Then there's the movie's baddy, Malcolm McDowell. His is an interesting situation in that while at times his role is the proper level of menace, there are also times it feels a bit hammy and unnatural. At least he doesn't end up shooting Frank in the back.
As previously mentioned, I own the old DVD so I pulled that one out to give a comparison between that and this new Blu. Though the final result may not make Blue Thunder a truly brilliant and shiny high def release, it does make for a substantial improvement over that DVD. Video is 2.40:1, 1080p and shows its age and the subsequent improvement. Colors are now far more accurate, with pleasing flesh tones and rich blacks. Details are much, much better showing all those nifty gadgets inside the cockpit and a plethora of other minutiae. All of the distracting artifacting, excessive grain, and dirt have been corrected on the new Blu. So when you first look at this new Blu disc, you'll give it an average grade since it lacks that eye-popping realism and dimensionality; but when compared to its older cousin, you can see the vast improvement. Audio is also a distinct upgrade from a lifeless 2.0 mix to a new TrueHD 5.1 It's not the most dynamic and bombastic movie, but the new mix is put to good use. Dialogue is clear and clean from the center channels, the surrounds are effectively used for ambience and immersion (during the numerous chopper scenes), and the bass gets a little bit of a workout but not too much. All of this is presented without any distortion, but I did feel that the rears sometimes felt a bit processed and unnatural. (Listen to the echo during the terrorist promo run.)
The original DVD came with just the trailer, but the Blu contains that trailer and a nice assortment of extras. First up is the audio commentary with Director John Badham (WarGames), Editor Frank Morriss, and Motion Control Supervisor Hoyt Yeatman. Varying from fascinating to boring, this track is replete with technical talk of making the movie back in the day. What it's lacking is more discussion about the actors and some inside gossip. Next up is "The Special: Building Blue Thunder" (8:23). This is a brief but insightful piece that details the actual design and build of the working choppers in the movie. Following this is the meat of the bonus items, "Ride with the Angels: Making Blue Thunder" (44:41). Broken down into three parts -- pre-production, production, and post-production -- this piece is an excellent overview of the entire movie, giving plenty of juicy details, including talking about the infamous deleted scenes. It would have been better had there been more Roy in it. Last up is an original "1983 Promo Featurette" (8:30) that focuses on those quality bedrocks of Big Brother and fear. Ah, the Naughts, I mean 80s.
Let me pull out an extreme nitpick: Lymangood pulls the fuse for the internal cockpit recorder. Later, after retrieving the night's videotape, he records Frank a message on the cockpit recorder. The next day, Frank has to put the fuse in to play the message. (1) Why would Lymangood record the message there? They were "on the run" and workers were doing post-flight stuff on the chopper. Did he really have time to get back in the cockpit? (2) What if the fuse got lost? And, did Lymangood really put the fuse back in and then take it back out?
It's not quite as cutting-edge and exciting as it was two decades ago, but Blue Thunder is still a very macho and enjoyable flick today. Featuring some nice scene chewing, slick hardware, and a nice chase through fictional Los Angeles, it's a brisk and fun movie. Top that with a solid upgrade in transfers and bonus material and Blue on Blu gets a definite buy recommendation.
Blue Thunder is hereby found not guilty of being a peeping Tom.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R