It's time for the night shift of the Los Angeles police department helicopter team to start, but one of their number, pilot Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), is nowhere to be seen. One of his bosses sends Murphy's new co-pilot, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), to find him, and he does discover him apparently meditating nearby, timing himself with his digital watch. Once that's out of his system, they take to the skies, and Richard admits he took this position because he thought there would be far less chance of being shot at. However, he is proven wrong when the first criminals they encounter open fire at the copter - but they're not who they should be concerned about...
In the eighties, movies began to embrace the kind of technology largely seen previous to that decade in science fiction, and not only movies, as the year prior Knight Rider had been a hit on television, proving that the main thing the action genre really wanted was an advanced vehicle, an advanced weapon, something advanced to reflect those changing days when everything computer-related was desirable. So Blue Thunder arrived in cinemas, not quite the airborne KITT - the helicopter didn't talk to Roy - but assuring us that no matter how outlandish the whistles and bells it carried, they were all in use by the U.S. Government.
This was presumably intended to up the paranoia ante, and looking back on this now it's clear that Blue Thunder represented the halfway point between the conspiracy thrillers of the seventies and the increasingly popular action thrills and spills that would take up a huge portion of the Hollywood blockbuster budget for quite some time to come. It wasn't the only exponent of this, of course, but it was one of the slicker examples, with a script by Don Jakoby and Dan O'Bannon that emphasised the hardware over the characters, who were somewhat taken from stock: Murphy is a Vietnam veteran who suffers flashbacks to a serious trauma, for instance.
Fortunately, director John Badham (who helmed the similarly technology-obsessed WarGames the same year) assembled a solid cast to bring the cardboard entities populating the story to life. Scheider was always a safe pair of hands in this type of thing, and gets a on-off partner in the shape of Candy Clark as Kate, who is just kooky enough to make you believe she would take part in a car chase with the cops at the crucial moment. Stern is good value as the naive but goodhearted co-pilot, and Warren Oates in his final role (the film is dedicated to him), snaps out his hardboiled lines like the pro he was.
Then there's the most hissable of the villains, Cochrane, essayed by Malcolm McDowell as the now customary English bad guy in an American action spectacular, whose catchphrase "Catch ya later!" you just know will come back to haunt him once he gets his comeuppance. So if you can't really take the politics as something we should be up in arms about, especially as we seem to be more used to the surveillance society now more than ever, what is there for the entertaiment seeker? Although Blue Thunder doesn't fly high in many people's lists of top action movies, that's doing it a disservice, as the stunts are excellent, and it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement of seeing the aircraft of the title zooming through the landscape of L.A., past skyscrapers and even onto street level. There may be a boys with toys aspect to most of this, but its efficiency is very welcome, with agreeable and even slightly underrated results. Music by Arthur B. Rubinstein.