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).
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.
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.
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.