The star of Blue Thunder is both its title character and its most sophisticated special effect: a helicopter equipped with complex audio and video surveillance powers and enormously destructive weapons. The machine, which looks like a mutant insect, has cost the U.S. government $5 million and it is intended to keep track of terrorists and assorted psychotics during the upcoming Los Angeles Olympics. But policecopter pilot Murphy (Roy Scheider) and his rookie buddy Lymangood (Daniel Stern) know better. They accidentally see hired assassins mug and then shoot a woman, a member of an urban-violence task force. When she later dies from her wounds, the conspirators concoct a phoney story about her slaying. Murphy, ever somnambulistic as played by Scheider, discovers a shred of paper from the dead woman’s briefcase which eventually establishes that the government assassinated her to prevent her from talking. Big Brother is not only watching— he is also actively involved.
The makers of Blue Thunder have not so much told a story as followed the prevailing marketing surveys that now, to a great extent, determine what is or is not filmed for mass consumption. The film has all the necessary ingredients: a new and unusual special effect, a supposedly sympathetic Vietnam veteran, a love interest, plenty of chases, a sprinkling of foul words, a glittery landscape, the appeal to public paranoia about government and a sound track to arouse even the deaf. There is no denying that Blue Thunder is expertly made and sensationally gripping. With its turn-on-a-dime chases through the air and on the ground and its state-of-theart video and audio prowess, it is an almost certain box office bonanza. But there is a calculation behind it that cannot be obscured by its flashy camera work and jolting editing: after catching his breath the viewer will likely realize that the movie, like the terrifying copter, has no soul. Blue Thunder does, however, have more personality than Roy Scheider, and it becomes difficult
to care about someone in peril who seems half-dead anyway. Even the villain (a marvellously cold-blooded Malcolm McDowell), who fought in Vietnam with Murphy, at least elicits a visceral response.
The disturbed Vietnam veteran, now a staple of U.S. movie plots, has worn out its dramatic usefulness. The cliché cheapens the experience of Vietnam because it is constantly trotted out for profit; the stereotype should be locked
away and given to Bruce Dern for safekeeping. Murphy, according to his boss (the late Warren Oates in a feisty performance), already had a breakdown just a month ago; in the skeleton of the script that means there will be more tension. Will he crack up before he avenges his pal, blows the whistle on the government and saves the day? The cigar smoke from studio story conferences is almost pungent when the script awards him a girlfriend (Candy Clark) who will come in handy during the final chase sequence.
The director, John Badham, has previously shown plenty of talent (Satur-
day Night Fever) that has often been unrecognized ( Whose Life Is It Anyway? and parts of the 1979 remake of Dracula). Badham’s talent is spectacularly evident in Blue Thunder. But all his feeling and sensitivity seem to have meanwhile been tucked away somewhere. Instead, there is an assaultive attitude taken toward the material: an apparent attempt to dart through each scene so that the viewer will not have time to think, reflect and then feel. Cer-
tainly anyone trying to do just that would notice how unclear the flashbacks to Vietnam are. The technique is merely intended to work on the audience’s associations with Vietnam: if it happened there, it must have been horrible, especially for Murphy.
The look of Blue Thunder, similar to last year’s Blade Runner, is undeniably ravishing. John Alonzo has shot so many salmon sunsets over Los Angeles and there are so many twinkling lights that the eye is dazzled while the brain remains drugged. Blue Thunder is truly an opiate for the masses.
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