LA Plays Itself In The Movies: Blue Thunder (1983)

Blue Thunder was released in 1983, and shot (I assume) in 1982. My first reaction watching this movie again for the first time in a while was Oh The SMOG! This movie is a time capsule for Stage 1 Smog alerts among other things.

Blue Thunder is about Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), a Vietnam vet and police helicopter pilot who is assigned to test the most advance helicopter ever built. The cover story is that with the Los Angeles Olympics around the corner, they need a machine to quell potential riots, terrorism and crime. Frank is, uh, an interesting choice for this mission as he suffers from PTSD triggered flashbacks and, as other characters mention in the first act, has recently had a “wig-out” and should be on leave. These were different times. These were real men.

Soon the truth is revealed about the real reason Blue Thunder has been brought to Los Angeles….

Fly across the jump to read more and to see the trailer and a helicopter chase scene through the LA River.

Malcolm McDowell plays Col. Cochrane, the pilot who runs Blue Thunder through her paces at a test range. He’s British, so you know he’s a bad guy and he and Frank flew together in Vietnam. Daniel Stern plays a young cop, assigned to Frank’s helicopter as an Observer after Frank’s previous partner bails after the “wig out”. (Total pussy.) Daniel Stern’s character is called JAFO and said he wanted to switch to the Astro Division because it would be quieter, safer. You know he’s toast. They go for a bonding spin in a regular helicopter, tracking down liquor store robbers and then spying on a naked woman doing yoga in her hillside home in Encino.

Soon, though, they take Blue Thunder out for a flight and discover all the neat technologies on board. You can make phone calls! There are cameras (including thermograph) and microphones that record onto 3/4″ tape! There is a computer that gives you access to government files! She’s bullet proof! She can fly silent in whisper mode! She’s got HUGE GUNS! JAFO runs both their names through the computer to see what happens and for Frank it says only: File Under Repair. Oh dear. They look up Col. Bad Guy and it says he’s part of something called THOR, which they find out stands for Tactical Helicopter OFFENSIVE Response. Uh oh.

Earlier, a city council woman was killed. She was a peace loving member of the “Task Force on Urban Violence” so you know she was assassinated, though it was set up to look like a rape/murder. All the more reason to get that helicopter out there! Our women folk are under attack! The men of the city know better (business men and politicians) and they have actually worked to “stir up trouble in the barrio” (do we still say ‘barrio’?) to prove that LA is a cesspool of violence and we need stronger defenses — like Blue Thunder — so the bad guys can all be rounded up and the business men can finally get back to making money. Luckily, Frank and JAFO, while in Blue Thunder, followed Col. Bad Guy to a meeting in downtown LA where he met with the men discussing just these plans. Hovering in whisper mode outside the window, JAFO recorded the whole conversation on that 3/4″ tape! But someone happened to see them out the window just at the last moment and so the chase is on.

JAFO manages to get the tape out and hide it, leaving Frank a message about where it is. Then (spoiler alert!) JAFO is killed by the same thugs who killed the council woman. Frank realizes he’s in deep shit so steals Blue Thunder (yes, easily done) and recruits his long suffering girlfriend, played by Candy Clark, to  go to the PickWick Drive In theater and retrieve the tape hidden in the dumpster by JAFO. She’s game and we spend the last part of the movie in the air, following her, making sure she get the tape to KTLA. The girlfriend makes it in the nick of time to the station, with a little help from Frank and Blue Thunder, and hands the tape off to…wait for it…Mario Machado! That is some vintage LA!

So, job well done, tape delivered, truth will be revealed. But Frank is still rogue with a stolen helicopter and thus begins great helicopter chase scenes through 1982 Downtown! The police come after Frank and they play cat and mouse through the streets of LA. This is old school stuff where they shot these scenes live. You can tell because the streets are empty, no cars, no people, no nothing. It’s so fun to zoom around the buildings down there for real. Today it would be a huge Visual Effects sequence. And there is plenty of room to fly as there are so many fewer buildings in Downtown! It looks like a different city.

After flying through the streets, we then get to fly down the LA river and under bridges. FUN!


Frank, being smarter and a better pilot, soon dispatches the police helicopters (without hurting any of them, of course).  So of course, they send fighter jets to shoot him down with heat seeking missiles. But he hovers near a Korean BBQ shack, hoping the missile will lock onto the giant BBQ smokestack. The loud hovering helicopter drives everyone out to safety and the missile blows the place to smithereens. If they remake this movie today, I believe the Kogi Truck will be the new target.

Col. Bad Guy can’t stand this so he gets in his own helicopter and chases Frank down. Lots of good hovering and flying around the then under construction Wells Fargo Building. Our hero prevails, of course, shooting down Col. Bad Guy in a place where no one else will get hurt. But now, what to do with Blue Thunder? This thing can’t be put into the hands of LA evil doers. So Frank sets her down on the tracks of an approaching freight train and boom. Problem solved.

Los Angeles gives the helicopter scenes a lot of room to maneuver, lots of time for dialogue, as this film could not have worked in a crowded NYC.  The backdrop of the 1984 Olympics also gives a sense of history for the future of LA and all the great things to come. I love seeing the future from the vantage point of a specific time, in this case 1982. My favorite view of what’s to come? At the very end when Mario Machado is finishing the news story about the helicopter and bad guys and the conspiracy, he then previews what is to come later in the newscast: “A sneak peak at a Japanese bullet train soon to be seen then Southland — Maybe.” Ha ha ha ha! Oh wait. That’s not funny.


See the intro and full list of movie posts here.

2 thoughts on “LA Plays Itself In The Movies: Blue Thunder (1983)”

Comments are closed.