The Rocketeer

One of the best movie posters ever.
This week, I watched one of my favorite flops of the 90’s, The Rocketeer. Disney stupidly released it on the same weekend as Terminator 2, arguably the best action movie of its decade, preceded by a huge hype machine including music videos by Guns ‘n Roses, video and pinball games, Slurpees and sunglasses behind it. The li’l Rocketeer was trampled under Arnie’s motorcycle boot like a box of flowers in the mall.

That’s unfortunate, because while Rocketeer isn’t a perfect movie, it’s good popcorn fun in the pulp tradition. It tried to ride on the coat tails of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘s immense popularity, but misses the mark by embracing the old timey innocence instead of riffing off it, as Ebert put it in his rather scathing review. Only Ebert can make you not want to see a movie he’s given a decent rating. (His recent review of Mongol, the Genghis Khan epic, gets 3.5 stars and the entire review is complaints of how it’s nothing but blood and slaughter with a dash of torture flakes).

Not just blowing smoke.
I’m guessing Disney wanted to aim it at kids, which doesn’t really work in a story about a stunt pilot fighting mobsters and Nazis over an experimental jetpack. Based on a comic book that recalls the adventures of Skylar King of “Sky King,” and other “King of the Rocketmen” and “Commander Cody” serials, it doesn’t really update things except in visual flair. The end battle especially, which has a huge zeppelin with a Nazi insignia appear out of nowhere over Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, fits in a cliffhanger serial but not in a summer blockbuster. I’m reminded of the excellent Superman serials, where one episode would end with a car exploding in flames, and then the next would begin with Superman zipping in to save the passengers just before it crashed.
Despite the movie’s flaws, it’s a lot of fun. Too much fun, in fact. Cliff Secord, played by wholesome all-American Bill Campbell, is flying an experimental plane (a model of which actually broke the speed record in the 30’s) when G-men chasing mobsters burst through their airfield, shoot at his plane for no reason, and cause all sorts of mayhem. One of the mugs hides a mysterious package in their hangar before he’s captured.

Peevy and Cliff
Cliff and his handyman buddy, played by grumpy Alan Arkin like Pops from “Speed Racer,” are now broke and need to fly in the goofy airshow again… until Cliff finds the hidden package, which turns out to be an experimental jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (played decently by Terry O’Quinn, Locke from “Lost”). The movie reveals all its villains as it unfolds. Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas) leads the mobsters, working for Hollywood heartthrob Neville Sinclair– played with relish by devilish Timothy Dalton, channeling Errol Flynn. The Flynn vibe is so obvious they even parody the classic Adventures of Robin Hood, lest you not guess which star he’s supposed to be.

Everyone wants the jetpack, including a hulking giant named Lothar who also works for Sinclair. In a movie made for adults, he would have been more fun- he folds people in half to silence them, and when a troop of Feds open up on him with tommyguns, he pulls out two .45’s and starts blasting right back at them. The scene quickly fizzles, and I think director Joe Johnston is less suited toward adventure movies than stuff like Honey I Shrunk the Kids and October Sky, which I enjoyed. He also made the tepid Jurassic Park III, which makes me concerned about his upcoming remake of The Wolf Man with Benicio del Toro. That should be more of a horror drama, so hopefully it won’t be as silly as this movie is.

Hotter than the jetpack

The movie has a lot of special effects, but little of the action really engages you. After Cliff and Peevy figure out the jetpack, he saves a wayward barnstorming pilot with it, and not much else. His steady girl Jenny, played by a vivacious and practically bursting out of her clothes Jennifer Connelly, falls in with nefarious Neville Sinclair, who seems much more aware of her womanhood than flyboy Cliff, who feels like he walked out of an Archie comic. When he flies in to save her, it’s more like comic relief than heroics, with our Rocketeer buzzing around the supper club like a gadfly. There’s no rocket punches, or firing his pack to singe anybody; the best I remember is him kicking Lothar when he comes at him with a wrench. Indy used to shoot people, too. I guess it’s out of style for pulp heroes for now.

Too wholesome hero

A pulp hero needs to be good with his fists, and ours doesn’t get a lot of time to use them. He does fly off to deal with the Nazi zeppelin with a Luger in his hand, but Disney decided gunplay was too rough for the kiddies, I guess. Every chance for breathtaking action just peters out- there’s a fight on top of the flaming dirigible vs. the monstrous Lothar, and a battle between G-men, gangsters and Nazis who pop out the bushes that has a lot of flash, but feels more like Dick Tracy than Indiana Jones. Despite this litany of complaints, the movie manages to be entertain. TV prettyboy Bill Campbell just isn’t a great lead, and everything is dialed back to be kid-friendly. There’s nothing wrong with kid-friendly, but I thought Raiders of the Lost Ark was kid-friendly, when I was a kid. Now it would probably garner an R rating.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did a great job of updating a pulp concept into an exciting modern movie, helped in part by spectacular special effects. Rocketeer has so-so effects, with the rocket man glowing like lightbulb against the backgrounds. The movie is screaming for an update that keeps the story in adult territory. He’s such an iconic figure, with the art deco helmet and leather aviator jacket. And with Indy fighting Soviets, we could use a pulp figure to beat up hordes of Nazi thugs again.

3 thoughts on “The Rocketeer

  1. I recently ordered James Horners’ score to the film. :)

    I think it would be fun to compare/contrast The Rocketeer with Iron Man some time.

  2. I love this movie and your reviews are really cool! I found you on the LAMB site. Check out my blog if you have time!


  3. I am a big fan of this film – so underrated. I thought it was a pretty faithful adaptation of Dave Stevens’ comic as well. And Jennifer Connelly was definitely well cast in this film! Out of all of the pulp/serial homages in the ’90s (PHANTOM, THE SHADOW, DICK TRACY), this one was always my fave.

    Nice write-up, it’s good to see this film get some love.

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