Old Gems: Blue Thunder (1984)

Human rights issues? What human rights issues?

Blue Thunder

Made in 1983, Blue Thunder was a cracking little action movie. Directed by John Badham and starring Roy Scheider (Jaws), it questioned the increasing use of military-grade equipment by the police and the new powers of surveillance available to the police that technology was beginning to afford them.

The centrepiece of the film was ‘Blue Thunder’ as it was nicknamed, an armour-plated police helicopter with a 20mm chain cannon, infra-red cameras, the ability to hover almost silently and microphones that can listen through walls – famously, as an on-screen caption said at the beginning of the movie, technology that was all available in the US at that point.

The film’s message was clear: we have to be very careful about this technology because in the wrong hands, even those of the government, law and order could be subverted. And at the end of the movie, Scheider lands Blue Thunder in front of a train and lets it blow up so no one can use it against the citizens of the United States.

So irony indeed that following the success of the movie, ABC decided to make a TV show in which Blue Thunder is benevolently used by Scheider’s character (now played by James Farantino and called Frank Chaney rather than Frank Murphy) to stop criminals, aided by Dana “Wayne’s World” Carvey and Bubba “Police Academy” Smith.

Here’s the halfway decent titles of the TV series.

The general idea of the show was that Farentino flew Blue Thunder, assisted by Carvey’s “JAFO” (‘just another frustrated observer’, rather than the movie’s ‘just another f*cking observer’) who looks after the computers and surveillance equipment. Meanwhile, for longer trips away from its Los Angeles home base, Bubba Smith along with another former NFL player turned actor, Dick Butkus, act as their ground support in a big van called “Rolling Thunder”. Farantino did the acting, Carvey was the humour and Smith and Butkus were there to appeal to kids and look big.

The stories themselves were pretty much your bog standard TV cop fare, although did benefit from a great big helicopter with a chain cannon on the front.

Because of the budgets of the show, quite a lot of the movie’s aerial work was recycled, but it did have a surprising number of aerial battles – because, you know, most of the criminals seemed to have aeroplanes, helicopters, autogyros, gliders,…

Notably, of course, the idea that the police should have this kind of technology without any real kind of oversight was glossed over, even to the extent that the original Blue Thunder demo scene from the movie was redone – except no ‘civilians’ accidentally get shot.

Nevertheless, there was one big problem looming on the horizon: Airwolf, CBS’s action helicopter TV show.

With a far harder edge and aimed more at adults than kids, that show’s greater violence and indeed better cast and scripts, which dealt more with international spy intrigue and blowing up Russians, soon won over the audience who thought it was just going to be “Blue Thunder with wheels” (of course, wheels do have their advantages). ABC, expecting a trouncing in the ratings, cancelled Blue Thunder after just 11 episodes.

It is still fondly remembered, however, and you can indeed still get it on DVD. I’d recommend Airwolf instead, though.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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