Director: Joe Johnston
Following the tremendous success of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, movie studios began looking at comic books for ideas they could translate into motion pictures. Many of them were inspired by little-known characters, and pretty much all of them were awful. But a handful managed to rise above the rest by actually being good. One such movie was The Rocketeer, based on a relatively obscure character created by Dave Stevens for Pacific Comics in 1982. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures in 1991, The Rocketeer had the unfortunate luck of being released in the same summer as blockbusters like Terminator 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and City Slickers. It ended up falling through the cracks and had just barely managed to break even domestically. That's a shame too, because it isn't really all that bad.
Welcome to Los Angeles, circa 1938. It is here that we are introduced to Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), a test pilot who loves his job in spite of the crummy pay. He's also hopelessly devoted to his girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). However, the aspiring actress erroneously believes that he loves his planes more than her, which makes it all the easier for her to become smitten after she captures the attention of the suave yet shady movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). And as Cliff's love life hits a rough patch, so is his career. A plane Cliff had intended to fly in a competition was left seriously damaged after a crash, and he and his talented mechanic sidekick Peevy (Alan Arkin) are left with no time or money to rebuild it. But he soon discovers that a wrecked plane will be the least of his worries.
Two thieves have stolen an experimental jetpack developed by Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) for the government. With the FBI on their tails, the thieves stash the jetpack in Cliff and Peavy's hangar. They discover it and after running a few experiments to figure out what it actually is, Cliff decides to hang on to it for a little while. A guy with a rocket strapped to his back would definitely draw a paying audience, and paying audiences would definitely help them through their current financial crisis. But little does Cliff know that fate is about to take him in a different direction. Cliff is forced to strap on the jetpack and save a fellow pilot who loses control of his plane during an air show, and the rabid media is quick to dub the unknown hero "the Rocketeer." But while he vows to use the jetpack for heroic purposes before eventually returning it to its rightful owners, Cliff soon finds himself being pursued by the FBI, a mob family ran by notorious gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), and the Nazis, all of whom want his new toy for themselves.
It might have been listed in a respectable spot on the "fifty greatest comic book movies of all time" list that Wizard Magazine released in the winter of 2008, but The Rocketeer has never really been considered a top dog in the genre. Sure, I will admit that the movie isn't exactly on the same plateau as more recent fare like Iron Man or The Dark Knight. But why does it have to be the recipient of such extreme neglect? Is it because the movie was made by Disney? Is it because of the obscurity of the Rocketeer character? I don't really know for sure. But as I wrote in the introduction, the lack of recognition the movie has received is a shame. The Rocketeer is actually a fun little throwback to the cheesy Republic Pictures serials like King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere, and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. It's simply a fun way to spend 108 minutes without having to worry about complicated stories or heavy-handed messages, or anything like that. The Rocketeer is escapism with the young and young at heart in mind.
Joe Johnston is in the director's chair for this one. Considering that he was coming off Honey, I Shrunk The Kids two years earlier and would go on to make Jumanji in 1995, he was probably the best person for the job. Say what you will about the guy, but he can make a heck of a family-friendly adventure movie. The Rocketeer is no exception to that, either. Johnston knows exactly what he's doing, keeping the pace lively and every scene engaging. With Hiro Narita handling the cinematography, Johnson hasn't made some glorified love letter to the '30s and '40s, but instead crafted a movie that feels lifted directly from the era. The movie has a particularly nostalgic feel without fetishising the time period. And that's part of what makes the movie so darn charming, too. Johnson's direction really draws you in, and with James Horner's fantastic score on the soundtrack, you really end up getting hooked by the end. Sure, the special effects could have been a little better, and look a little less obvious that people are standing in front of a green screen, but it's acceptable. It's never really bad enough that it pulls you out of the movie, and it actually adds to the retro feel.
But as I said, the direction is only part of what makes the movie work. Another part is the screenplay, penned by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. It has everything you could want from the old movie serials. There's a "gee whiz" hero with his beautiful girlfriend and quick-witted sidekick, a villain who looks like he's fighting the urge to start twirling his mustache, gangsters, G-men, Nazis, and an enormous thug for hire who looks just like B-movie actor Rondo Hatton. Oh, and explosions. Can't have a movie without a few explosions. Bilson and De Meo skip all the formalities and choose not to write something that doesn't worry about making any deep messages or anything like that, instead choosing tow write a movie that focuses more on being entertaining than anything else. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to write a fun movie, either.
Last on the list is the cast, who all put forth their best efforts. Bill Campbell has been accused by some reviewers of being a little stiff here. But actually, I think he makes for an entertaining hero. His performance really suits the character, and you really believe that Campbell is a somewhat naïve but well-meaning pilot with a tendency to get in over his head. Campbell is charming in the role, to say the least. Playing his sidekick is Alan Arkin, whose performance is a lot of fun. He's a little on the hammy side, but you can't help but be entertained by his repartees with the other characters. Though nearly a decade away from the career breakthrough that was Requiem for a Dream, Connelly proves to be quite capable as the Rocketeer's doe-eyed love interest. She exudes a certain sexy innocence that really makes her feel as if she's stepped right out of those old serials. It also helps that Connelly is a very good actress, because she nails the role. Timothy Dalton does a fantastic job as well, playing his character as a cross between Errol Flynn and Snidely Whiplash. He's obviously having a lot of fun playing such an over-the-top villain, and that fun becomes infectious. Dalton steals practically every scene he's in, and I would say he's probably the biggest reason to watch The Rocketeer. And although their characters end up being small in the long run, Terry O'Quinn and Paul Sorvino also make positive contributions to the movie with their performances.
Though I think it may have developed a somewhat small following, The Rocketeer remains a pretty much neglected entry into the genre of comic book movies. It's one thing for movies like Judge Dredd or Barb Wire to be forgotten, because they're terrible. But The Rocketeer is actually really entertaining. Just like the old serials I've mentioned so many times, the movie is a fun way to spend a slow Saturday afternoon. It's an exciting movie with really good acting, and it's a bummer that it does not have a broader audience. So I'll give The Rocketeer three and a half stars and my seal of approval. I would totally like to get one of those jetpacks for myself, but knowing my luck, I'd probably set myself on fire with it instead.
Final Rating: ***½