I’ve seen a lot of movies over the course of my lifetime, but there are still literally thousands of movies that I have never seen. Disney live-action features were shoved way down the list because there was a time when my inner alpha male wanted blood and guts and swearing and boobs. Well, now that I’ve thankfully passed that phase of my life, now is the time to catch up on stuff I wrote off so long ago. The Rocketeer is one such film.
Disney’s The Rocketeer was released during a period where movie-going audiences were not completely bombarded with films based on comic book characters. It’s difficult to imagine a time when Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, etc. were not part of the pop culture scene. Here was 1991 and the most recent effort in that regard was a huge box-office failure with Albert Pyun’s Captain America. The Rocketeer was based on a comic by Dave Stevens which, in turn, was an homage to the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. In a summer that was dominated by time-traveling cyborgs, The Rocketeer provides its own time travel, back to a more innocent time where science-fiction instilled wonder and awe, rather than bleakness and despair.
The setting for The Rocketeer is Los Angeles in 1938. The aviation industry is in the early stages of its boom, just before World War II. Pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his friend, Peevey (Alan Arkin), are test-flying their new Gee Bee racer, which is suddenly shot down by gangsters who are fleeing both the police and the feds. It turns out that the gangsters have stolen something that is of great value. After pulling into the airfield to hide the object, the gangsters are caught/killed. We find out soon after that the “third highest-grossing actor” in Hollywood, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), had hired the gangsters to retrieve the object for him. Sinclair is the Errol Flynn-type but holds a secret about himself that would make sense in terms of why he wants this prize: a rocket-pack prototype designed by none other than Howard Hughes himself. Meanhile, Cliff and his girl, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), struggle through the trials of courtship, as Jenny wants to be a Hollywood star. Coincidentally, she just happens to be an extra on the set of Sinclair’s latest film. When Cliff finds the rocket-pack hidden in a plane at the airfield, he attempts to tell Jenny about it during a visit to her movie set, where his conversation is overheard by Sinclair himself, prompting him to invite Jenny to dinner in an attempt to learn more.
During an airshow, Cliff uses the rocket-pack in order to rescue his friend from a horrible accident, and suddenly becomes a media sensation. At the same time, this sets the feds and the gangsters headed to the airfield in order to grab the rocket-pack. Sinclair employs a giant brute of a man named Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) to do his dirty work for him. Lothar resembles the late Rondo Hatton, in a great ode to the actor courtesy of make-up effects master Rick Baker. It’s not long before we get mobsters, federal agents, hulking henchmen and Nazis descending on Cliff and the rocket-pack. The story has a thrilling climax aboard a zeppelin where it ends with the hero attempting to outrun an explosion, as so many action scenes in other films have attempted. The plot has some questionable, silly moments such as how so many Nazi soldiers got into the country undetected, along with their giant zeppelin with the Nazi insignia. However, the story itself is fun and really takes its cue from old-time serials and comic books. It resembles Raiders of the Lost Ark in taking inspiration from adventure stories of a bygone era, but it doesn’t contain as much wit as the Indiana Jones films do. This is a super-hero origin story, and save for a few story hiccups, it absolutely works.
Director Joe Johnston utilized this same template for his work on Captain America: The First Avenger. That movie also contains the same sense of wonder for science fiction that The Rocketeer contains. The production values look good and feel authentic with the special effects coming off as practical and appropriately low-key, almost as if they were modeled after the effects in an old Flash Gordon serial. Johnston has a good feel for nostalgia, which no doubt got him the director’s job for Captain America. The screenplay by Danny Bilson does lack some wit, as already mentioned, but it has a keen sense of time and place and rightfully takes time out to marvel at the possibilities that future technology holds.
Bill Campbell was fine in the lead role as Cliff/The Rocketeer. He’s good-looking if somewhat bland. However, he would have fit in with the same white-bread leads in serials of the past so maybe there was some intent there. Jennifer Connelly matches Campbell in the looks department, making for two attractive leads. Connelly comes off as innocent as the women from the era she’s in. Timothy Dalton overshadows the two leads with his performance as Neville Sinclair. He’s dashing but you can feel his malicious intent in his phony smile. The rest of the cast, including Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn and Ed Lauter, are several of the finest character actors you can find and each one serves their role adequately. This adds up to a very fleshed out and solid cast.
The Rocketeer is silly good fun, with a great old-timey atmosphere and tone. It is a little talky at times and the plot contains more than one “yeah, right” moments but it’s heart is in the right place and never really fails to entertain. A good cast and a director with an eye for nostalgia help make the pieces fit, providing the audience with a rousing good time. It’s also a film the entire family can enjoy, without alienating anyone. The Rocketeer is a surprisingly good film.
Rating: ***1/2 – Surprisingly good.
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