Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is a Vietnam vet-turned-cop who pilots a police helicopter for the LAPD. Every night, he and his partner, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern) fly over Los Angeles, helping to keep the peace and peeping on anyone undressing in a high-rise apartment.
Murphy is selected to serve as the test pilot for what is described as being the world’s most advanced military helicopter, Blue Thunder. Blue Thunder is so advanced that the pilot can control the gun turrets just by turning his head and it’s also been supplied with the latest state of the art surveillance equipment. The pilot of a Blue Thunder can literally spy on anyone while listening to and recording their conversations. With the Olympics coming up, the city of Los Angeles wants to test out the Blue Thunder as a way to control the crowds and prevent crime during the Games.
Murphy may be impressed by the helicopter but he has his reservations about the program. He immediately sees that Blue Thunder could be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Those wrong hands would belong to Col. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), who was Blue Thunder’s first pilot and also Murphy’s commanding officer during Vietnam. Murphy is still haunted by the atrocities that he saw committed by Cochrane during the war.
When it turns out that Murphy was right to be suspicious of Cochrane’s intentions, the movie turns into an exciting aerial chase above Los Angeles, with Murphy in Blue Thunder, trying to outrun F-16s, heat-seeking missiles, and eventually Cochrane, who enters the chase in a Blue Thunder of his own.
I’m always surprised that Blue Thunder doesn’t have a bigger following than it does. It’s an action classic, with a gritty performance from Roy Scheider, a villainous performance from Malcolm McDowell, and comedic relief from the always reliable Daniel Stern. Even Warren Oates is in the movie, playing Murphy’s LAPD commander! The script actually does have something relevant to say about the militarization of America’s police forces (and it feels downright prophetic today) and the chase scenes are all the more exciting because they were filmed in the era before CGI and have an authenticity to them that is missing from most modern action films.
Blue Thunder is a perfect example of the “don’t do this really cool thing” style of action film. The Blue Thunder helicopter is described as being a danger to everyone in the country and the movie even ends with a note saying that real-life Blue Thunders are currently being designed. But I don’t think anyone who has ever watched this film has thought, “I hope they stopped making those helicopters.” Instead, this movie makes you want to have a Blue Thunder of your very own. They’re so cool, who wouldn’t want to fly one of those things?