Friday, July 4, 2008
Abusing the Privilege
It was during the Fourth of July weekend twenty-five years ago that I was taken by my parents to my first R-rated film in the theater. Of course, we’d already had cable for a while which means that it wasn’t the first R-rated film I’d ever seen. Why it took them even longer to let me actually go to see one in the theater is a mystery that will probably never be solved. Meanwhile, at a multiplex somewhere right now I’m sure a kid in preschool is going to see WANTED. But anyway, the film I was taken to see at the late, lamented Scarsdale Plaza at that time was John Badham’s helicopter epic BLUE THUNDER. Remembering this anniversary caused me to take another look at the film. It never really seems to follow through on some of the serious themes it brings up but all things considered it hasn’t aged that badly.
After a portentous title card (THE HARDWARE, WEAPONRY AND SURVEILLANCE SYSTEMS DEPICTED IN THIS FILM ARE REAL AND IN USE IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY.) setting us up for a serious examination of technology’s role in modern society we meet Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) a police helicopter pilot in L.A. who is a bit of a loose cannon, continually monitoring his own sanity which is clearly connected to his own Vietnam flashbacks (Didn’t Clint Eastwood’s FIREFOX have a similar character trait for the lead?) After following him on a shift with new partner Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern) where, after the pair spies on a young woman doing yoga in the nude--something I probably enjoyed back then but now just seems creepy--a routine call leads to an attack and ultimate murder of a prominent city councilwoman, Murphy is selected to pilot the prototype for Blue Thunder, a military-style super helicopter to be used for survailance and in case of terrorist activity (the then-upcoming ’84 Olympics are referred to). The military man in charge of Blue Thunder, Col. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) is actually Murphy’s old nemesis from the war (and I know that I hate when I have to deal with my old nemesis) and Murphy soon becomes suspicious what Blue Thunder’s real purpose may be.
BLUE THUNDER, screenplay credited to Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, moves along at such a fast clip that it’s easy to forget that some of its issues are pretty much glossed over in favor of the helicopter stuff. Not that I’m complaining that much. Some of the aerial footage is genuinely dynamic and there’s some pretty good action too. However, it does seem like the movie is caught between the grittier, conspiracy-minded films of the 70s and the spectacular, throw-logic-out-the-window mindset of the eighties—the footage of helicopters flying through Century City in DIE HARD came to mind. The movie deals with racial relations, government conspiracy, post-traumatic stress disorder, even a mention of the Munich massacre (I’m sure that sailed over my head back then) and it blends a little uneasily with elements which, frankly, I suppose were designed to appeal to me at the time. There’s no other way to explain the amount of time spent on things like Candy Clark’s car chase antics, something it feels like the movie is ultimately more interested in than in clarifying the more serious elements of what the bad guys are up to. The amount of destruction which occurs in downtown L.A. is so huge that it’s hard to imagine that no one was killed in the climax but the film does its best to imply otherwise. Hey, if they say so. The Get-the-tape-to-the-media subplot feels left over from the PARALLAX-type paranoia of the 70s as well, but things definitely turn out better here than they did in BLOW OUT.
It’s also interesting as an L.A. movie, which some pretty amazing aerial photography of the city (especially when compared to similar stuff in HANCOCK which, well, doesn’t compare—why does a movie like that look so ugly in comparison?). The cinematography by the late, great John Alonzo uses a lot of colors available in the various dusk shots of the skyline whether they make sense or not. There’s a lot of detail seen throughout, making it enjoyable to figure out what part of the city they were flying over. I kept looking out to see if my own building would make an appearance, but no luck. Geography is a little wonky though—at one point Scheider and Stern are patrolling over Westwood (looks like MOMMIE DEAREST is playing) when they are called to an armed robbery at Circus Liquor in North Hollywood (address correctly given as Burbank and Vineland). I know they’re in a helicopter, but wasn’t anyone closer? The long gone Pickwick Drive-In also turns up (address incorrectly given as Riverside and Victory—how would it have ever fit there?) making me wish that a drive-in still existed in the valley.
It’s easy to imagine that Roy Scheider took on this role because of the character, not realizing at first just how much he would be overshadowed by the technology. But the fact that he always seems like a human being who can feel genuine pain makes him an ideal counterpoint. Because of this, Scheider almost manages to make us believe it at the end when he--well, I guess I shouldn't give it away. It's ridiculous, but it's still pretty cool. And is the final shot an intentional echo of the end of THE SEVEN-UPS? Either way, it's an ideal beat to end on. After everything that's happened, the actor has earned the way he takes back the frame in that final image. Warren Oates, who died before the movie was released, gets all the best lines, fully expressing how all this newfangled technology means dick to him. “You’re supposed to be stupid,” he tells Daniel Stern when the rookie tries to take the blame for something. “Don’t abuse the privilege.” Malcolm McDowell is pretty bad but in fairness it’s a pretty terribly written, thinly drawn bad guy role anyway. His one good moment comes when he has to radio in after a helicopter has gone down and dryly intones, “It seems we have a ship down somewhere in the Watts area.” Every now and then I got the feeling McDowell was trying to add little bits to amuse himself, but there’s only so much you can do with repeating “Catch ya later!” ad nauseum. Gee, what do you think the kiss-off at the end of the movie’s gonna be? On the other hand, you could probably find somebody who hasn’t seen this movie for twenty years and I’ll bet “Catch ya later!” might be the only thing they remember, so there’s something to be said for that. Daniel Stern has the Daniel Stern role as Scheider’s gawky partner, Candy Clark is Scheider’s on-off girlfriend who at least gets something to do and Joe Santos plays another helicopter cop, maybe to try and convince us that we’re actually watching an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES.
Ultimately, the movie seems to exist for the thrill of the helicopter chases so while I could complain that the more serious elements wind up half-baked there’s no denying how much the action is pretty damn cool--it's well-staged, well-cut and does all the right things to make this an ideal popcorn movie. Those are actual helicopters flying over L.A. and even if there is some use of miniatures it all works just great. The movie resists extensive comment partly because it ultimately becomes more about the hardware than what that hardware represents. But there are far, far worse things in this world than a genuinely exciting movie with helicopter battles. That sort of thing worked for me as a kid and it still works for me now.
“Catch ya later…”