The Rocketeer (1991)
I’m back, baby! Expect regular burblings from now on. Anyway, do any of you people remember Disney’s The Rocketeer? For me, it became a childhood classic. I’d taped it off the TV and watched the damn thing to the point of knackeration. After seeing it pop up as a limited release on Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance having not seen the film for close to 20 years, eager to see if it still holds up. You know what? It’s still bloody brilliant.
“[donning the Rocketeer helmet] How do I look?”
“Like a hood ornament.”
Set in 1938, The Rocketeer tells the story of stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell). After having their hopes of glory and fortune shattered, Secord and his mentor “Peevy” (Alan Arkin) find a top secret rocket pack prototype by chance and discover it’s been designed and built by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Seeing an opportunity to make some much needed money, they hang on to it, keeping it a secret from everybody, including Secord’s actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). The pair aren’t the only ones interested in taking to the skies, however, as Hollywood A-Lister Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) has hired the mob to retrieve the rocket for himself. Meanwhile, Secord’s antics earn him the attention of the press, who start printing fevered acticles about this new, exciting and mysterious Rocketeer and it soon becomes the talk of the town. Cue lots of whizz bang action an’ shit.
In a move that John Carter would repeat 20 years later and pay a similar price for, The Rocketeer was controversial for not having a “proper” star in the lead role. Actor Billy Campbell was cast despite being an unknown. As a kid, I never understood why Campbell wasn’t the most famous actor ever. He was a good looking guy with the reluctant hero thing down pat. Looking on with adult eyes, his performance is still a fine one, although he looks distractingly like a mix between Crispin Glover in Back to the Future and Ryan Reynolds. Alan Arkin does well as Peevy, giving us a stock mentor character that crucially doesn’t feel like a stock mentor character. The lovely Jennifer Connelly lovelies stuff up as Jenny Blake. Despite her character veering into standard damsel-in-distress territory at the end, she gives a memorable turn. Star of the show for me is Timothy Dalton as the Errol Flynn-a-like, Neville Sinclair. I love him in this film. Whereas most actors would look at the script and play the role a bit tongue in cheek, Dalton commits to the role 100% and gives us a proper sleazy bastard to boo and hiss at.
The Rocketeer is a simple story, but it’s done very well. If you’re still struggling to picture what exactly The Rocketeer is all about, think Iron Man set in the Thirties with the pulp adventure tone of Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in. It’s exactly as fun as that all sounds too. I’m happy to own up to my own bias as me and this film got history, yo. However, I feel The Rocketeer is exactly the sort of blockbuster they just don’t make any more. It has a very strong story focus with careful attention paid to characters. The film is chock full of foreshadowing, thematic links and everything else that makes a film a satisfying watch. Back in the ’90s, it may have been overlooked as simply being a run-of-the-mill functional blockbuster- today it looks like Citizen Goddamn Kane in comparison to most of the high budget dreck spunked into theatres.
The Rocketeer is a fascinating case study as if it had released about 10 years later, it would have fallen in line with the superhero trend and would have done a lot better than it ended up doing. When it came out back in the dizzle, it flopped pretty damn hard, despite a huge marketing push. It did particularly terribly in Britain, barely scraping £1 million over two weeks. Despite mentioning Iron Man, there’s a superhero film that resembles The Rocketeer even more. You heard of a small film called Captain Titfuckin’ America? Yeah. Both are directed by Joe Johnston and both have that lovely period feel to them. One of the things I loved about Captain America was how earnest everything was. Everything’s played straight down the line without a trace of the sort of cynicism and audience second-guessing that poisons modern blockbusters. The same is true with The Rocketeer. It’s a classic Boys’ Own adventure flick.
Despite ILM’s effects work being dated, the action still packs a punch. The flying scenes are fun and the grand finale aboard, in and outside of a huge Zeppelin is brilliant. I like the fact that Secord isn’t a superpowered badass when he straps on the rocket, he’s a squishy, easily hurt human being like the rest of us with an unpredictable combustible machine strapped to his back. It adds a real element of peril to the action sequences. The film’s slightly goofy at times and the lumbering character of Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor) doesn’t really work. It’s a strange cartoony element that is at odds with the rest of the film. Maybe the comic does a better job.
“Prepare yourself for a shock: I’m the Rocketeer.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, haven’t you read the paper?!”
“No, I’ve been working all day.”
We don’t have any quality control as kids. We’ll enjoy any old shit when it’s on. A childhood classic that is still enjoyable and watchable years later once you’ve had all your childish innocence and enthusiasm knocked out of you by a harsh, uncaring world is a very rare thing indeed. There’s been talk of a remake/belated sequel to The Rocketeer for a few years now. I’m usually against remakes on principle, but I’d be delighted if Disney announced they were doing something with it. Anyway, seek it out if you can. It’s a blast. (That’s not a rocket pun by the way, I’ve just used up all my brain power and it’s the only word I can think of that aptly describes what it is. I’m doing this extended bit in brackets because I couldn’t just end a review on something that could be interpreted as a shitty pun. Savvy?)