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Film / Blue Thunder

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Blue Thunder is a 1983 action film about a police helicopter pilot who discovers a Government Conspiracy to use an experimental Black Helicopter for urban riot control. It earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing and kicked off a subgenre of Cool Helicopter shows including a short-lived 1984 TV series of the same name and the enormously more popular Airwolf.

Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is a Vietnam War veteran who flies helicopters for the Metropolitan Police Astro Division in Los Angeles. In his time off, he deals with a failed relationship and his fears of going crazy, based on flashbacks he keeps getting to a traumatic 'Nam mission. In the course of training a new observer, rookie Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), he witnesses what appears to be the planned murder of a city councilwoman, but when he tries to report his suspicions, he's grounded due to earlier "extracurricular" activities.

Murphy tries to follow up on the killing on his own time, finding a scrap of paper that calls attention to something called the "Project THOR". Before his investigation can bear fruit, however, he's called up and his suspension is lifted so that he can participate in field testing of a new helicopter. Code-named "Blue Thunder", it's a heavily armed and armored machine with advanced sensors and stealth technology designed for urban riot control. He also meets his nemesis, Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), a gung ho military test pilot who knows Murphy from Vietnam, and not in a friendly way.

During their first flight in Blue Thunder, Murphy and Lymangood decide to experiment with its stealth and sensor capabilities, while at the same time using the onboard computer to investigate THOR. They end up uncovering a conspiracy to incite unrest in the city's ghettos in order to showcase the new helicopter. When the bad guys realize they've been found out, all bets are off. The two must run for their lives with the evidence, and Murphy is forced to steal Blue Thunder and fight a high-stakes aerial battle over the city.

Trope Thunder:

  • Achilles' Heel: In the climactic battle, Blue Thunder's targeting system is knocked out by a lucky shot.
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The third act quest to get the Plot Coupon to the right people is preceded by one, as Murphy listens to poor Lymangood's message about where it's hidden and is clearly struggling with sorrow because this is the last time he'll ever hear his friend's voice, now that the villains have killed him. Lymangood's familiar bantering just twists the knife further, but also gives Murphy that much more motivation to ensure his death was not in vain.
  • Almost Lethal Weapons: In the Blue Thunder TV series, the "Blue Thunder" is still armed with its 20mm Gatling cannon, which sees use Blasting It Out of Their Hands and other trick shooting when the villains of the week are not piloting a Weaponized Car of their own.
  • And Starring: "And Malcolm McDowell" during the end credits.
  • Artistic License – Military: Not the Governor, the Mayor, the Chief of Police, or anyone else can authorize military pilots to fire live missiles (outside of training missions, which are conducted very far from civilian population centers) over the United States. Only the President of the United States can do this. Even getting military support for the operation would have violated Posse Comitatus, because military personnel cannot support civilian law enforcement without a lot of hurdles being cleared.
  • Big Bad: Colonel F.E. Cochrane. The Greater-Scope Villain is the Government Conspiracy he works for, but amongst the members that appears on screen he looks to be a higher-up. Also, given he was responsible for the murder that's central to Murphy's trauma and flashbacks, in a sense he's been this to Murphy for years.
  • Big Brother Is Watching You: Even referred to In-Universe when the microphone in the cabin (monitoring the crew's conversation) is nicknamed Big Brother. Blue Thunder's effectiveness as a potential tool of repression quickly becomes obvious.
    "This terminal here is hooked into every data bank that there is. Twelve of these and you could run the country."
  • Billed Above the Title: Roy Scheider gets this honor here. All the credits are run at the end, and after the title the other actors aren't billed until after not only the writers but several key crew members — in particular the cinematographer and film editors — get their credits.
  • Black Helicopter: Blue Thunder is a very dark blue but it fits the principle of the trope well enough, being designed for stealth and as the tool of a Government Conspiracy.
  • Bullying a Dragon: The two Police choppers who came up after Murphy are very much guilty of this. After spending barely twenty seconds talking to him, they go trigger happy and start spraying him with small arms. What amounts to a prototype super military attack helicopter with massive armor plating. It really can only end one way - and they are incredibly lucky Murphey was very selective with his shots when he returned fire.
  • Can't Stop the Signal: The third act's centerpiece action sequence has Murphy providing aerial cover for his girlfriend who is trying to get the tape bearing the evidence to the media.
  • Car Fu: Lymangood is struck by the mook's car while trying to escape captivity.
  • Catchphrase: Cochrane's "Catch ya later". Reused by Murphy as a Bond One-Liner. Also, "Follow my leader."
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Murphy flashbacks repeatedly to a helicopter flight where a Vietnamese soldier was thrown to his death, but the memory always cuts off before the end. In the final battle, he seems to unlock the full memory, revealing that Cochrane is the one who did it.
    • The remote erase functionality for Blue Thunder's recording system functions as a Chekhov's Gun for the villains, as they remember it just as the tape is about to escape any possibility of being recovered. It fails by mere seconds!
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • Murphy's reputation for looping a helicopter (supposedly an aerodynamically impossible feat comes into play in the climactic showdown with Cochrane.
    • Murphy's girlfriend's driving skills (and willingness to go the wrong way down a one-way street).
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Of the breaking fingers variety, used on Lymangood. Notably, it doesn't work; as soon as they let up he tries to escape.
  • Cool Plane: The film is designed to showcase Blue Thunder, a stealthy, armored helicopter with a rotary cannon designed for urban riot control.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The councilwoman's murder early in the film is written off as a common street crime, with only Murphy insisting that it was far too complex and well-planned.
  • Da Chief: Captain Braddock of the Astro Division, Murphy's boss, seems to exist mainly to chew him out for insubordination rather than believe his theories about the conspiracy. He even believe Murphy had gone on a chopper rampage during the third act of the film.
  • Day of the Jackboot: Project THOR, which involves quelling urban riots with copious Death from Above.
  • Dead Man Writing: Lymangood's recorded message to Murphy, telling him where he stashed the tapes.
  • Dead Sidekick: Lymangood is murdered by the villains' mooks after escaping interrogation.
  • Dedication: "For Warren Oates, with love for all the joy you gave us".
  • Description Porn: Sgt. Short, when describing the helicopter's weaponry.
    "This whole ship is heavily armored with Nordoc NATO armor, one inch thick. This ship is equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimeter electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a shit-storm in anybody's language!"
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Remarkably averted, to the point where things that you'd think would explode pretty easily — like helicopters — don't, even when shot out of the sky by Blue Thunder's rotary cannon.
  • Evil Brit: British immigrant Colonel Cochrane serves as a U.S. military pilot.
  • Evil Is Petty: Cochrane's sheer hatred and jealousy of Murphy knows no bounds, culminating in his defying orders to stand down and instead continuing his pursuit of Murphy. He ends up paying for this with his life, when Murphy accomplishes the fabled loop-the-loop feat to boot!
  • Fake Static: "Cannot read you, Special Base. Still garbled." Murphy is later called out on this by Captain Braddock.
    "Who are you fooling with that phony radio bullshit? Jesus Christ, Frank, that went out three days after Marconi invented the fucking thing!"
  • Full-Name Ultimatum: When Kate thinks Frank left her apartment without saying goodbye (he is actually asleep and having Vietnam flashbacks), she yells the following:
    'Kate: Goddamn your black Irish heart, Frances McNeil Murphy! If you left without saying goodbye, so help me-!
  • Fun with Acronyms:
    • JAFO (Just Another Fucking Observer)
    • And the THOR project itself: Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response.
    • Cochrane's first and middle initals, F.E. - Played for Laughs by Murphy:
    Lymangood: "F.E. - What's the F.E stand for?"
    Murphy: "Fuck Everbody"
  • Gatling Good: Blue Thunder is armed with a turret-mounted, automatically tracking 20mm rotary cannon. It's awesome.
  • Generic Cop Badges: The squad cars have a huge "Metropolitan Police" decal on the front doors.
  • Government Conspiracy: The T.H.O.R. Project turns out to be a conspiracy to incite urban riots in order to show off the capabilities of Blue Thunder, presumably in order to motivate the police to purchase and operate more of them.
  • Gunship Rescue: When Murphy's girlfriend has finally been stopped by the police, he flies Blue Thunder up from beneath an overpass and aiming its gun directly at the cops. They are so startled that she gets the chance to flee. When they collect themselves and give pursuit anyway, he blows their patrol car in half.
  • Helmet-Mounted Sight: The direction of the title helicopter's autocannon is controlled by its pilot's helmet.
  • Heroic BSoD: Based on his Vietnam flashbacks and the fact that he constantly tests himself for "sanity", it seems as if Murphy is teetering on the edge of one of these for the entire film. note 
  • Hot Pursuit: Murphy's girlfriend attempts to outrun the cops while carrying the tape with the evidence to uncover the conspiracy. Murphy has to rescue her with Blue Thunder.
  • Immune to Bullets: Blue Thunder itself, at least to normal ammunition, although it has a few weak spots, particularly when military-issue armor-piercing rounds are involved.
  • Infrared X-Ray Camera: Blue Thunder's "infrared" camera can apparently see through walls and windows. Quite possibly the Trope Codifier if not the Ur-Example.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Although the film treats looping a helicopter as aerodynamically impossible, this is not actually the case. It depends more on the performance characteristics of the aircraft in question than an absolute rule of physics. Most helicopters (including the Gazelle) cannot successfully loop because the rotor is mounted directly to the transmission and engine, and the powerpack would rip itself out under the stress of the loop. The Apache and many other modern combat attack helicopters have the rotor mounted on a bearing attached to the airframe, and the driveshaft is separate, so it can handle higher stress, and can pull a loop.
  • Karma Houdini: The goon that kills Lymangood — and who notably was also keeping watch on the robbery/assassination of the Congresswoman that started Murphy's investigation — is never seen again after he does this and one can only hope that he'll be arrested alongside the rest of the T.H.O.R. conspiracy once the investigation happens.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Lymangood comments to Murphy in a recorded message that it seems like they're playing "cops and robbers for real."
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Early on, Cochrane sabotages Murphy's helicopter during a tryout flight in an attempt to get him out of the way.
  • Meaningful Name: The architects of the Evil Plan probably shouldn't have assigned someone named Murphy to pilot their high-tech helicopter if they wanted everything to go smoothly. Of course, since it is an Evil Plan, Murphy using the helicopter for the "wrong" purpose is a good thing in this case. (The film's main theme is actually called "Murphy's Law".)
  • A Million Is a Statistic:
    • The presumably high casualty count from a heat-seeking missile hitting a skyscraper is barely acknowledged. Either that or it's a Conveniently Empty Building. Frame-by-frame will reveal a large number of missing windows, but is it abandoned or slipshod Special Effects?
    • Discussed during Blue Thunder's demonstration, in which Murphy points out that all of the "terrorist" targets have been destroyed and some "civilian" targets as well as collateral damage (and it's left unsaid they were all shot with a 20mm cannon):
    Fletcher: One civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That's an acceptable ratio.
    Frank Murphy: [turns to Captain Braddock, snarks] Unless you're one of the civilians!
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: An apparent rape/mugging turns out to be a contracted hit which is in turn part of a larger conspiracy to incite urban riots and unleash the titular Black Helicopter onto them.
  • More Dakka:
    Sgt. Short: This ship is equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimeter electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a shit-storm in anybody's language!
  • Mysterious Middle Initial: And first-name initial too, with Colonel F.E. Cochrane. Murphy jokes to Lymangood that the initials stand for "Fuck Everybody" when Lymangood asks.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain:
    • That helicopter you've created that's good at sneaking up on people's windows and spying on them? It's also perfect for listening in on a Government Conspiracy!
    • The bad guys arrange for someone in the media lobby to steal the tape; all he does is free the tape from its container in the struggle — just when his superiors decided to give up on finding the right erase code and just wipe out all data in all tapes.
  • No Endor Holocaust: The question of whether engaging a helicopter with Air Force interceptors over the city is necessarily a good idea is at least brought up, if glossed over. However, the news anchor narrating the ending seems to blatantly ignore any mass casualties from what transpires.
  • The Peeping Tom: One scene involves Murphy and Lymangood hovering outside a young lady's picture window to watch her practice nude yoga.
  • Plot Coupon: The tape containing the evidence to unmask the Government Conspiracy.
  • Police Are Useless: Captain Braddock, he refuses to believe Murphy of the conspiracy and ends up believing him to be Going Postal during the final air chase.
  • Power Perversion Potential: A variant — the Astro Division has a penchant for peeking in windows, and Murphy taking Lymangood to visit the "girl in Encino" (who happens to be quite fond of nude yoga and has a very large picture window) is what gets him grounded the first time.
    • In another variant, on the test flight with Blue Thunder, they hover outside a fellow officer's house. Utilizing the aircraft's "Whisper Mode" and directional mics, they capture the explicit activities of said officer and his wife... and proceed to blast it out of the loudspeakers.
  • Repeat Cut: Used twice, first in the climactic helicopter duel with Cochrane, and then at the end when Blue Thunder is destroyed by a train.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Murphy's flashbacks are triggered by his Vietnam War experiences and he does various tricks to try to detect if he's still sane (such as constantly using his wristwatch's stopwatch function to see if he still has the ability to measure time). The bad guys even exploit this during the final act by saying that he went berserk and stole the chopper. (The original script concept would have gone even further in a Taxi Driver way.)
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Lymangood, the lighthearted sidekick, is killed at the end of the second act.
  • Silent Running Mode: Blue Thunder is equipped with a "whisper mode" that cancels most of the noise from its blades and turbines and lets it hover outside a building with nobody inside any the wiser.
  • Smug Snake: Cochrane is insufferably smug and faux cheery, particularly with his habit of pointing a finger gun and clicking his tongue at Murphy just to taunt him.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: After spending a lot of effort chasing down the tape with the evidence, one of the villains asks why they don't just remotely erase it, since it's previously established that they were designed with this functionality. The other villain replies that they don't know the code for the specific tape, to which he is told to just "erase them all", as if it should have been obvious.
  • Surprise Vehicle: Blue Thunder's surprise appearance above an overpass allows Murphy's girlfriend to escape the cops.
  • Tagalong Kid: Lymangood is assigned to the Astro Division as an "observer" and Murphy gets the duty of shepherding him around. Though not a pilot himself, he becomes fairly useful by tracking down some crucial plot clues.
  • Theme Naming: Central to project THOR is a helicopter dubbed Blue Thunder.
  • This Cannot Be!: Cochrane's reaction when Murphy manages to perform the loop.
    Cochrane: That's impossible!
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Murphy seems to go out of his way to avoid intentionally killing anybody while flying Blue Thunder around the city. All the killing in the movie, except for the very last battle with Cochrane, is done by the bad guys, nameless cops, or misguided military personnel (seriously, how do you justify firing heat-seeking missiles around in a goddamn city?).
  • Title-Only Opening: One of the earlier examples of this trope, with all other credits (plus the title) only appearing at the end.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: A rather literal example in that the protagonist is a police helicopter pilot who must defy his superiors to stop a Government Conspiracy.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Over the course of the film, the audience is privy to Murphy's recurrent flashbacks to his witnessing the death of a Vietnamese solider on one of his missions. In the climax, a final flashback to this includes The Reveal that Cochrane was responsible.
  • Unflinching Walk: Subverted. While walking away after having set the Blue Thunder on the rail tracks, Murphy actually does flinch for a moment when freight train crashes into the helicopter.
  • Weapons Understudies: The Blue Thunder uses a modified Aerospatiale Gazelle chassis with a modified cockpit.
  • Wronski Feint: Used by Murphy to dodge heat-seeking missiles, with sunlight reflected from a highrise in one case, and the heat of a barbecue chimney in another.

"Catch ya later..."