Blue Thunder

October 12, 2012

Blue Thunder the movie is not quite as sleek and sophisticated as Blue Thunder the ultra-helicopter, but it’s a well-organized hunk of action movie, with the requisite spectacular stunts, a healthy dose of creeping paranoia, and a passel of crooked government bad guys. It’s a film consisting entirely of surfaces—shiny glass, blue metal, white skies—but they’re hard, fast surfaces, and just flashy enough to keep your attention. Passing in front of and between these cool surfaces are some good actors: Roy Scheider as an ace LAPD chopper pilot who gets to test-fly the new supercopter; Daniel Stern (the tall guy in Diner) as his green partner, who is along for the ride when Scheider starts to get wise to some very unusual idiosyncrasies of Blue Thunder; Candy Clark as Scheider’s patient woman friend; Warren Oates heading the police air division (the film is dedicated to the late actor); and Malcolm McDowell as Scheider’s irredeemably loathsome nemesis.

Director John Badham has taken great pains to make sure we know what’s going on, and he also takes care to set up a number of maneuvers that are going to become relevant in the final cat-and-mouse sequence (i.e., Scheider’s proficiency at slaloming around obstacles, and Clark’s skillfully exuberant driving). He’s aided by John Alonzo’s sharp cinematography; as a matter of fact, Blue Thunder is so thoroughly okay that almost nothing leaps out as being particularly praiseworthy.

But there is a weird aspect to it unlike anything I’ve seen in any other slam-bang action movie, and that’s the almost obsessive attention to the safety of innocent bystanders. Everybody who gets in the way of Scheider and his pursuers—and I’m talking about the faceless people on the street now, the kind that get eaten by the dozens in Japanese horror movies—is accounted for by news or police reports; as, “Two helicopters, a police car, and an office building were destroyed, but everybody’s all right.” Scheider even gets caught off his guard because he’s watching one of his attackers parachute to safety in the city streets. This is a new wrinkle in the bust-’em-ups; generally, the extras from central casting who signed on as passers-by also get to double as cannon fodder.

This more humanitarian method is being employed so that Scheider’s final mission won’t be causing a lot of innocent people’s deaths, a situation that might blur the clearly-defined fact that Scheider is the good guy, as indeed he is (earlier, one of the top brass had said that one civilian dead per ten terrorists was an acceptable ratio, but Roy doesn’t think so). I don’t mind this sort of accounting, but it is strange to see a helicopter crash full speed into a solid cement column and then watch all the crew members hop out. And it’s a different sort of summer blockbuster that you can call violent and considerate.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

A mechanical summer hit, as indicated.

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2010

June 6, 2012

Every now and then you hear rumors that some bonehead movie producer plans to make a sequel to Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, and you think to yourself, “How on earth could anyone get such a stupid idea?” Well, somebody got the idea to make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even worse, they actually followed through on this stupid idea.

The result, 2010, is a ridiculous addendum to one of the great visionary works of the cinema. It takes up pretty much where 2001 left off, with stills from the first film to remind us of what happened to the first Jupiter mission, which was examining a large, inexplicable black monolith. (This introduction doesn’t make mention of any huge Star Child floating around.)

2010 has Russian and American astronauts cooperating to find out what went wrong with that mission by traveling to Jupiter and boarding the abandoned spaceship. The recognizable crew members for the new flight are Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, and Bob Balaban (the translator in Close Encounters).

Oh yes, there are a couple of members of the old crew still around. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), who underwent the series of inscrutable episodes at the end of 2001, still exists in some form near that monolith. And HAL 9000, the computer that flipped out so memorably before being dismantled, is resurrected.

The voice of HAL is Douglas Rain, the same actor who gave such unforgettable life to the computer in the 1968 film. Almost the only truly eerie moments in 2010 belong to HAL, because Rain’s voice is in subtly sinister character.

The rest of the film is hooey, with the imminent nuclear war on earth an obvious set-up for the unsurprising, upbeat ending. Writer-director-producer-cinematographer Peter Hyams (he did Capricorn One and Outland) throws in a couple of suspense pieces early on (a dull orbit entry and Lithgow’s shaky spacewalk) to distract us from the main objective, which is finding out what in tarnation that big black thing is.

Hyams gets the look of the film okay, but for all the technical progress of the last few years, it still doesn’t equal 2001. And he certainly can’t equal the earlier film’s stylistic breakthroughs; all he does is overlay his own optimistic view on things.

Stanley Kubrick would probably be disgusted by that. It was Kubrick’s chilly genius behind 2001, of course, and he is nowhere to be seen in this film—except as briefly glimpsed on the cover of Time magazine. Arthur C. Clarke, whose story “The Sentinel” inspired 2001, also wrote the sequel as a novel, and apparently had input on Hyams’ screenplay.

In a way, I’m almost relieved 2010 turned out to be as negligible as it is. Sometimes an ambitious or outrageous sequel can, in weird ways, tarnish the memory of an unimpeachable original. There’s going to be no problem about that with 2010. We can all just forget it.

First published in the Herald, December 7, 1984

Mostly I just remember being annoyed by the effrontery of the movie—the nerve of these people. Along with Rain’s vocal performance hitting the expected moments, there was a shiver conjured up by Keir Dullea’s presence, in part because he looked freakily like the guy from 2001—Dullea hadn’t aged much, and he didn’t have that many subsequent movie reference points to alter the image of Dave Bowman.


52 Pick-Up

May 1, 2012

52 Pick-Up is a complicated and clever story from Elmore Leonard’s novel; the fact that Leonard had a hand in writing the screenplay probably accounts for much of the tasty dialogue and weird characters (it is, to say the least, closer to Leonard’s writing than the mess Burt Reynolds made of Stick).

This one’s about a businessman (Roy Scheider) blackmailed for his extramarital dalliance with a young “dancer” (Kelly Preston) by three very wacko villains (John Glover, Robert Trebor, and Clarence Williams III). Scheider can’t go to the police and come clean because that would mean the end of the political career of his wife (Ann-Margret).

So he has to take things into his own hands, with some satisfying results. It’s a good little thriller—though one might have expected, and occasionally gets, a bit more, considering that it was directed by John Frankenheimer.

Frankenheimer’s career is ripe for resurrection. Some of the films he made during the 1960s—most of all The Manchurian Candidate—are among that decade’s best. But he’s been wandering in the wilderness for years.

52 Pick-Up has just enough quirkiness to suggest that Frankenheimer still has it in him. And some of the early dissolving-marriage scenes between Scheider and Ann-Margret are exceptionally grown-up and tart, to an extent you don’t see much in movies these days. Before it surrenders to conventional plotting, 52 Pick-Up is an exciting film.

First published in the Herald, November 1986

The movie also features Vanity and Doug McClure, which is why you have to love the ’80s. This movie didn’t kick-start the Frankenheimer comeback, but it did indicate the talent was still there, and an upswing was coming.