A Delicate Sound of Blue Thunder

Have I no shame?

Actually, I do, but I’m about to squander the last of it away like Jack giving away his cow, without even some magic beans, much less their subsequent beanstalk, to show for it.

I collect DVDs, and have a weakness for certain types of movies and television shows. Sometimes, my standards can actually be fairly high, tending toward well-written dramas, comedies-of-manners – "Careful there, Vicar", "Very droll, Bernard", that sort of thing.

This isn’t one of those times. Not even close.

No, in this case, I’m admitting to enjoying something terrible. Why? Well, because it has a rather surprising amount of good flying in it. Before Michael Bay gave us Pearl Harbor, before Tony Bill gave us Flyboys, flying scenes in movies and television shows were usually real, and, thus, good. If scenes weren’t shot for that particular title, then you might see stock footage. If it was faked, it was usually faked so horribly with models that it was worth watching anyway.

In short (though it’s already way too late for that), even the worst production can still have some disproportionately good flying bits … Audiences may forgive bad actors, writers, and directors, but aircraft will almost never forgive bad pilots.

Which brings me to my confession, naming something I’ve been trading a bit of sleep for the past few nights: Blue Thunder: The Television Series.

I know that some of you are saying "No, no … Blue Thunder was a movie! You’re thinking of Airwolf, with Jan-Michael Lizardskin!" 

(Those poor souls among you who found this post on my site when Googling "Finland" are saying something like "Hän olen I tähän? Nyt kuluva says ei ensinkään jokseenkin Suomi!" To them I say, with all sincerity, "Me puolustella ajaksi epäkäytännöllisyys.")

Sadly, I’m right. Blue Thunder was a television series, spun off from the movie of the same name. Difficult as it may be to believe, of the Blue Thunder-inspired helicopter shoot-em-up series, Airwolf was … the good one.

For those that are just joining us … The original Blue Thunder film, released in 1983, starred Roy Scheider as LAPD pilot Frank Murphy, Daniel Stern as Richard "JAFO" (Just Another F****** Observer) Lymangood, and Malcolm McDowell as Col. Cochrane, clearly a villain because he dressed well and spoke with an accent. The plot followed Murphy and Lymangood getting assigned to fly the titular chopper, portrayed by an aesthetically modified Aerospatiale SA.341G.  In the film, the new helicopter represents a dramatic shift in thinking for police air support: in addition to the usual Nightsun spotlight and near-useless PA for yelling at people, it is armor-plated and armed with a 20mm cannon that shoots something like 6,000 rounds per minute. In addition, there is a lot of real-sounding surveillance equipment, a massive onboard computer – some kind of aerial ENIAC, and magic switches that can make the helicopter go really fast, and make the rotors really quiet in "whisper mode".

The movie follows Murphy and Lymangood as they put the helicopter through its paces, blowing things up, dogfighting with the bad guy, and, naturally, using whisper mode to spy on the nice lady in the high-rise apartment who does her yoga without wearing any clothes. Once the token nudity is out of the way, all the cool flying is done, and there’s nothing left to blow up, Murphy has  a crisis of conscience. He discovers that the cannon on the front of this helicopter is not simply designed for crowd control at the upcoming Olympics, rather, it’s meant to actually kill people! Naturally, he destroys the helicopter, thereby saving Los Angeles from turning into a fascist mini-police-state.

Fast forward about six months, and here comes the television version. In the series, a second helicopter has been built, and is being operated under the auspices of some kind of shadowy government organization called APEX or something similar that I didn’t really care about. Skillfully ignoring the pesky ethical and political issues raised in the film, the second Blue Thunder is used in the show by and with the LAPD for the sole purpose of blowing things up.

The pilot this time is Frank Chaney, played by James Farentino, and JAFO (now a "Frustrated" Observer) is Clinton Wonderlove (8 years before the president of the same name was first elected here in the US), played by a pre-Saturday Night Live Dana Carvey. They’re supported on the ground by a unit called "Rolling Thunder", which is a big van that seems to have nothing in it but a slightly smaller camouflaged truck, and two ex-football-players-turned-cops played by ex-football-players-turned-something-like-actors Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus.

Every episode is exactly like every other episode, and, in turn, just like every other show in the mid-80’s from the likes of Stephen J. Cannell and Donald P. Bellisario: Bad guys that you saw most recently on either The Love Boat or Fantasy Island or both do bad things. The hero, a chip-shouldered iconoclast with a check-kiting ego wants to go after them, but he’s held back by bureaucracy, pencil pushers who want it all done by the book. He follows his gut, goes after them anyway, and blows them up, and his bosses begrudgingly admit that he was right all along. Everyone grins, plucky JAFO gets turned down by the pretty blonde behind the desk yet again, and … freeze frame.

So what makes it worth (and I use the term carefully) watching?

Well, as it happens, Blue Thunder returned to the LAPD just in the nick of time – suddenly, everyone who commits any sort of crime, somehow finds a reason to use an armed (and fairly unusual) aircraft. Whether it’s bank robbery, smuggling, assassination, kidnapping, or some kind of shady mob accounting, a dogfight is inevitable, once a week. I’ve seen Blue Thunder shoot down an F8F Bearcat, an OV-10 Mohawk, a couple of Long-EZ’s, an F-86 Sabre, the late great Art Scholl’s Super Chipmunk, and a van full of clowns.

Unlike the airplanes, the clowns, naturally, had it coming.

But good flying is good flying, and, I’m forced to admit, in this case it is largely well shot. The fact that the producers spent all of their money on avgas and Jet-A and none on writing is almost forgivable, if only to an airplane geek.

The show only lasted eleven episodes – so far, I’ve lasted four. I’ll most likely make it all the way through to the end, unless I get distracted in the meantime by my boxed set of Air America: The Series.

Blue Thunder – The Television Series is awful, really. Go buy it.

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20 Responses to A Delicate Sound of Blue Thunder

  1. Francois says:

    You are right the plot (was there any???) sucks in each one of them. Still, you brought back some memories. I\’ve seen all episodes at the time. Which probably wasn\’t THAT long ago since we get all series 10 years later in this country than everywhere else :-)))I admit being a sucker for anything that flies, so I watched. ;-)Francois

  2. Unknown says:

    Wow, this brings back memories haha!  Cheesy 80\’s aviation shows/movies like Blue Thunder, Airwolf and Iron Eagle were staples of my childhood.  I had no idea Cochrane in Blue Thunder was the same guy who played Linderman recently on Heroes – crazy!  Anyone remember Clint Eastwood\’s movie Firefox?  That was around the same time as this I think and dealt with an equaly ridiculous plot involving a secret hypersonic interceptor he steals from the Soviets that can read his thoughts as long as he reminds himself to "think in Russian" – classic.One goof I noticed haha  – they were in the normal police Bell 206 when they were watching the yoga lady, not Blue Thunder :)Ryan

  3. Hal says:

    "One goof I noticed haha  – they were in the normal police Bell 206 when they were watching the yoga lady, not Blue Thunder :)"
    Oh, great, Ryan, thanks a lot!
    Now I have to go back and watch that scene over and over again to make sure that you\’re right! Work, work, work! 😉
    Oh, and Mitchell Gant says "Привет и хороший глаз мой друг!"
    Thanks for reading!

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