Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:
BLUE THUNDER. Columbia Pictures, 1983. Roy Scheider, Warren Oates, Candy Clark, Daniel Stern, Paul Roebling, David Sheiner, Joe Santos, Malcolm McDowell. Director:
MIRACLE MILE. Hemdale Film, 1988. Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykel T. Williamson, Kelly Jo Minter. Screenwriter & Director: Steve De Jarnatt.
On the surface, at least, Blue Thunder and Miracle Mile don’t have all that much in common, at least in terms of plot. But, dig a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that they actually do share some remarkable similarities, including a helicopter.
Most obviously, though, they are both 1980s films set in Los Angeles in which the city itself becomes a character. More poignantly, both films tap into the public’s latent fears. While in Blue Thunder, the fear of both street crime and the extreme measures that law enforcement might employ to combat serves as the basis for the plot, in Miracle Mile, the fear of nuclear annihilation and the subsequent inability to escape a densely populated urban corridor pervades the movie’s dark, claustrophobic atmosphere.
Blue Thunder is, however, the far better of the two films. Directed by John Badham (War Games), the movie stars Roy Scheider (Jaws) as Frank Murphy, a LAPD helicopter pilot struggling with PTSD from his Vietnam years. Murphy and his partner, portrayed by Daniel Stern, are assigned to operate a super high-tech chopper, the eponymous Blue Thunder.
Not only does the bird have offensive weaponry, it also has ridiculously intrusive surveillance equipment. The apparent goal of the LAPD, in conjunction with the military brass, is to have Blue Thunder on hand in preparation for any possible disturbances associated with the forthcoming 1984 Summer Olympics.
All is not what it seems however. That’s even more the case when Murphy’s ex-Vietnam colleague, Colonel F.E. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), shows up with his scheming grin and trademark hand gesture (you’re just going to have to watch it). He’s a reptile in a flight suit, that one.
As it turns out, there is a scheme – a conspiracy – to stir up urban violence in Los Angeles as a means of selling the LAPD and maybe even other city police departments, on the necessity of having their own Blue Thunder’s. It’s all brooding, dark paranoia on full display here, worsened by Murphy’s repeated flashbacks.
Unfortunately, the somewhat formulaic plot doesn’t gel as much as the visuals, some of which are truly stunning. The city of Los Angeles, as seen from above, is on full display here and it’s a beautiful vista, particularly at night. The scenes of Blue Thunder flying above Century City are breathtaking, as some of the helicopter fight scenes.
There’s one other strong point worth mentioning, and that is the presence of actor Warren Oates, who portrays Captain Jack Braddock, Murphy’s cynical, tough-as-nails superior. Oates was just perfectly cast here, reminding me a bit of Lee Van Cleef’s unforgettable role in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Scheider’s not bad, either. Not by a long shot. But I don’t think many would consider Blue Thunder to have been one of his best roles.
Miracle Mile is a significantly weaker film. Like Blue Thunder, however, it has some great on location shots of Los Angeles, specifically the Miracle Mile shopping district on Wilshire Boulevard that stretches past Johnnie’s Coffee Shop toward the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits.
The film unfolds like a Cornell Woolrich story or an Alfred Hitchcock film. Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a somewhat mild-mannered jazz musician visiting the City of Angels. He’s apparently never really found true love. All that changes when he meets Julie Peters (Mare Winningham), a waitress who lives with her grandmother at the Park La Brea apartments.
After oversleeping and missing their date, Washello heads out to the diner where Julie works, hoping to catch up with her or at least find a way of contacting her at home. While outside of the diner, he hears the telephone in the phone booth ringing.
So he picks it up.
Turns out that the guy on the other end of the line works at a missile silo in North Dakota and is trying to phone his father in Orange County to give him heads up about a pending nuclear missile attack. By pending, I mean within an hour or so.
It’s a wonderfully suspenseful premise that just isn’t executed very well, making the movie far less thrilling than it could have been. The rest of the film revolves around Washello’s attempts to make people believe he isn’t lying, to woo Julie, and to escape from Los Angeles. By helicopter no less.
Although Miracle Mile isn’t a particularly great movie, it does benefit from one of the boldest and most daring endings I’ve seen in a film from that era. It turns out the anonymous caller was right. There is a nuclear war afoot.