'Blue Thunder' is a movie of modest pleasures. Back in 1983, the picture seemed like a state-of-the-art techno thriller. In reality, it was always little more than a concept in search of a story. The pitch was this: what would happen if a high-tech police helicopter were used to violate citizen rights? Looking back on it from a modern perspective, where the technology in the film is commonplace if not outright antiquated, the gimmick certainly loses its edge. What we're left with is a competent action movie with some decent aerial stunts and a likeable performance from its star.
Roy Scheider, trading in on some of his action hero cred from 'Jaws' (and to a lesser extent its first sequel), plays L.A.P.D. helicopter pilot Frank Murphy. He and his fresh-out-of-the-Academy partner (a baby-faced Daniel Stern) patrol the city skies observing the action below, reporting on suspicious activity and occasionally shining a spotlight on a perp to help the ground officers make an arrest. Theirs is far from the most exciting or dangerous job on the Force, but the pair enjoy their work and hope to make a difference. With the Olympics scheduled to come to L.A. in 1984, city officials fear that racial tensions will escalate. Plans are set in motion to use a special prototype helicopter with anti-terrorist capabilities for riot control purposes. Code-named Blue Thunder, the mechanized monster is heavily armored, armed with a Gatling canon, and equipped with the latest in whiz-bang surveillance gear. The bird can fly nearly silently, hear and see through walls, and blow the hell out of any threats it might encounter with computerized precision.
Murphy, who had previously flown combat back in 'Nam, is enlisted to be its test pilot. He has misgivings about the assignment, and believes the power of this technology could be too easily abused to threaten, terrify, or harm the citizenry. His fears seem borne out when a city councilwoman is murdered and the crime is written off by his superiors as a random act of violence. Murphy digs further, uncovering a conspiracy to stir up social unrest and thus justify the expensive Blue Thunder project. Caught in the act of snooping, he's framed for a crime he didn't commit and must steal the chopper to bring the true story to public attention.
The movie wants to be part '70s paranoid conspiracy thriller and part '80s high-tech action flick. It winds up leaning more towards the latter. The script is a little thin and formulaic. Murphy must of course face off against a gruff police captain (Warren Oates in his final screen role) and a sneeringly evil rival pilot (Malcolm McDowell). The film is also needlessly violent at times. Nevertheless, the story is coherent and relatively logical. If not all of the plot points ultimately hold up to scrutiny, the picture is free of the sort of blatant, abject stupidity that infects most modern action movies. The characters don't talk down to the audience, and unnecessary comic relief is kept to a minimum.
'Blue Thunder' wasn't a hugely-budgeted production, but it has some striking aerial photography and well-staged action sequences. The climactic low-level copter chase through the L.A. streets is quite exciting. That kind of stunt work simply wouldn't be permitted anymore. These days, the whole sequence would be painted in by CGI. Here, real helicopters buzz between buildings at top speed, as low as fifty feet off the ground. It's kind of extraordinary in its way. Most of the special effects in the picture hold up fairly well, except for a couple of F-16 fighters that look ridiculously fake. That entire section of the movie could have been cut with no negative consequence to the plot, and probably should have been.
Between this movie and 'WarGames', director John Badham ('Saturday Night Fever') set himself up as Hollywood's go-to guy for high-concept technological thrillers in 1983. Both were decent-sized hits, especially 'WarGames'. 'Blue Thunder' never achieved blockbuster status, but went on to be very popular on home video and cable. The film was also successful enough to spawn a spin-off TV series that ran for half a season in primetime. Unfortunately, the show was rather terrible, and had its own thunder (no pun intended) stolen by a competing program called 'Airwolf'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Blue Thunder' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Unlike most discs from the studio, this one has no obnoxious promos or trailers before the main menu.
For a modestly-budgeted action movie from 1983, 'Blue Thunder' looks surprisingly good on Blu-ray. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is quite sharp and detailed. John Alonzo's 2.40:1 photography has solid '80s colors and crisp contrasts. The black levels during night scenes are often inky rich, yet shadow detail is still discernable, which is critical for a movie with so many scenes involving a darkly-colored helicopter flying around at night.
Film grain is properly preserved, heavier in dark scenes than daytime. The disc exhibits no overt problems with artificial sharpening or Digital Noise Reduction. All things considered, this is a very striking high-def transfer for such a marginal catalog title.
The sound quality is also better than expected. Although not nearly as immersive as modern movies, 'Blue Thunder' had quite an aggressive Dolby Stereo mix in its day, and also played with 6-track audio in its 70mm release prints. Sony has reconfigured the mix to 5.1 format for the lossless Dolby TrueHD track. Directional steering effects are frequently pronounced as helicopters buzz around the soundstage. The opening credits have impressive surround presence. The soundtrack also makes use of a lot of rumbly bass, and can rev up really loudly during the action scenes.
Dialogue is always clear and discernable, but the electronic score lacks much crispness or fidelity. Sound effects can also come across harshly. Some of the action scenes, while certainly loud enough, turn into a muddle of indistinct noises. Even so, by 1983 standards, this soundtrack has held up remarkably well.
The bonus features are a replication of the Special Edition DVD released back in 2006. Curiously, both of the newer featurettes prepared for that DVD are framed at 2.40:1 widescreen.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Although the disc is BD-Live enabled, the studio's BD-Live portal offers no content specific to this movie.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The 2006 Special Edition DVD also had some storyboards that didn't make the transition to Blu-ray.
'Blue Thunder' may be a thick slice of '80s cheese, but the movie can still entertain when the mood strikes. The Blu-ray looks and sounds much better than you'd expect, and even comes with a few fairly interesting supplements. This is guilty pleasure material, to be sure. If 'Blue Thunder' happens to be one of your pleasures, the Blu-ray is certainly worth a look.