In 1983, Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helicopter-pilot-officer and troubled Vietnam War veteran with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His newly assigned field partner is Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern). The two patrol Los Angeles at night and give assistance to police forces on the ground.
Murphy is instructed to attend a sunrise demonstration in the Mojave Desert at "Pinkville" (34 54'41.46" N, 118 13'11.99" W), and is selected to pilot the world's most advanced helicopter, originally conceived in name as The Special, and hung with the nickname, "Blue Thunder", it is one of two prototypes of a military-style combat aircraft intended for police use in surveillance and against possible large-scale civic disobedience during the 1984 Olympic venue. With powerful armament, and other accoutrements such as infrared scanners, powerful microphones and cameras, built-in mobile telephone, computer and modem, and a U-Matic VCR, Blue Thunder appears to be a formidable tool in the war on crime. Murphy notes wryly that with enough of these helicopters "you could run the whole damn country."
When the death of city councilwoman Diane McNeely turns out to be more than just a random murder, Murphy begins his own covert investigation. He discovers that a subversive action group is intending instead to use Blue Thunder in a military role to quell disorder under the project codename T.H.O.R. ("Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response"), and is secretly eliminating political opponents to advance its agenda.
Murphy suspects the involvement of his old wartime nemesis, former United States Army Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), the primary test pilot for Blue Thunder and someone who felt Murphy was "unsuitable" for the program. Murphy and Lymangood use Blue Thunder to record a meeting between Cochrane and the other government officials which would implicate them in the conspiracy, but Cochrane looks out the window and sees Blue Thunder and realizes what has happened. After landing, Lymangood secures the tape and hides it, but is captured upon returning to his home, interrogated, and killed while trying to escape. Murphy steals Blue Thunder and arranges to have his girlfriend Kate (Candy Clark) retrieve the tape and deliver it to the local news station, using the helicopter to thwart her pursuers. Kate arrives at the news station, but is almost captured by one of the conspirators; the reporter Kate was sent to find intercepts Kate and gets the tape back, while the conspirator is knocked unconscious by a security guard.
Two Air National Guard F-16 fighters are deployed to deal with Murphy, but he manages to shoot one down and evade the other. However, in the process, one missile destroys a barbeque stand in Little Tokyo and a second impacts a building in Downtown Los Angeles. The operation is then suspended by the mayor. Cochrane, disobeying orders to stand down, confronts Blue Thunder in a heavily armed Hughes 500 helicopter, and after a tense battle, Murphy is able to shoot him down after executing a 360° loop through use of Blue Thunder's turbine boost function. Murphy then destroys Blue Thunder by landing it in front of an approaching freight train.
In the meantime the tape is made public and as a result the conspirators are arrested.Roy Scheider as Officer Frank Murphy
Malcolm McDowell as Colonel F.E. Cochrane
Daniel Stern as Officer Richard Lymangood
Candy Clark as Kate
Warren Oates as Captain Jack Braddock
Joe Santos as Montoya
Paul Roebling as Icelan
David Sheiner as Fletcher
Anthony James as Grundelius
Ed Bernard as Sgt. Short
Jason Bernard as Mayor
Mario Machado as Himself
James Murtaugh as Alf Hewitt
Pat McNamara as Matusek
Jack Murdock as Kress
Clifford A. Pellow as Allen
Co-writers Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby began developing the plot while living together in a Hollywood apartment in the late 1970s, where low-flying police helicopters woke them on a regular basis. Their original script was a more political one, attacking the concept of a police state controlling the population through high-tech surveillance and heavy armament. They sought and received extensive script help from Captain Bob Woods, then-chief of the LAPD's Air Support Division. The first draft of the screenplay for Blue Thunder was written in 1979 and featured Frank Murphy as more of a crazy main character with deeper psychological issues, who went on a rampage and destroyed much of Los Angeles before finally falling to F-16s.
Filmed on location in Los Angeles beginning in the early months of 1980, Blue Thunder was one of Warren Oates's last films before his death on April 3, 1982, which occurred during post-production, and the film is dedicated to him. He made one movie and one TV episode before and after filming during 1981-1982 that were released after Blue Thunder.
The LAPD Hooper Heliport served as home base for the fictional police unit while construction of the heliport was still being completed. The drive-in theater scene where Frank's girlfriend Kate recovers the tape was filmed at the Pickwick Theatre in Burbank, California; the theater has since then been demolished and replaced by a Pavilions supermarket.
Malcolm McDowell, who portrayed antagonist F. E. Cochrane, was intensely afraid of flying, and not even his then wife Mary Steenburgen could persuade him to overcome his phobia. In an interview for Starlog in 1983, Badham recalled, "He was terrified. He used to get out and throw up after a flight." McDowell's grimaces and discomfort can be seen during the climactic battle between Murphy and Cochrane in the film. Steenburgen commented to filmmakers afterward, "I don't know how you got him up there, I can't even get him in a 747!"
Designer Mickey Michaels invented the helicopters used in the film after reviewing and rejecting various existing designs. The helicopters used for Blue Thunder were French built Aérospatiale SA-341G Gazelles modified with bolt-on parts and Apache-style canopies. Two modified Gazelle helicopters, a Hughes 500 helicopter, and two radio-controlled F-16 fighter models were used in the filming of the movie. The helicopters were purchased from Aérospatiale by Columbia Pictures for $190,000 each and flown to Cinema Air in Carlsbad, California where they were heavily modified for the film. These alterations made the helicopters so heavy that various tricks had to be employed to make it look fast and agile in the film. For instance, the 360° loop maneuver Murphy performs at the end of the film, which catches Cochrane so completely by surprise that he is easily shot down by Murphy's gunfire and killed, was carried out by a radio controlled model.
Blue Thunder was released on May 13, 1983. It was the #1 ranked film in the United States on its opening weekend, taking in $8,258,149 at 1,539 theaters, overtaking the previous #1 film Flashdance. The film was ranked #2 in its second and third weekends. Overall, in the US, it took in $42,313,354 for its 66 days of release. Blue Thunder was released in West Germany on February 5, 1983, before its US release, being released worldwide between June and September 1983. Its UK release was August 25, 1983. It was released in East Germany and South Korea in 1984. Its total international box office income is unreported. The film made $21.9 million in video rentals in the US.
Blue Thunder received positive reviews, being given an 84% positive rating at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Variety called it "a ripsnorting live-action cartoon, utterly implausible but no less enjoyable for that".
In 1987, Coca-Cola Telecommunications released a Blue Thunder video tape cartridge for Worlds of Wonder's short lived Action Max game system. Using footage from the film, the player plays the pilot of the Blue Thunder helicopter as he tries to prevent the World Peace Coalition from being attacked by a terrorist organization.
Sony is developing a remake of Blue Thunder focusing on drone technology, with Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca as producers, and Craig Kyle as writer.