The Rocketeer

 
I’m not the man they think I am at home…
 
 

 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.”

“The Rocke-who?”

“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?)

Licence to Kill

I know you were all (read: 2 of you) expecting this review yesterday, but I had to vacate my room and beloved desktop for a day or two whilst some building was going on. With that incredibly drab look into my personal life, I give you Dalton’s second outing as Jimmy Bon-Bon.

Licence to Kill (1989)

Poor ol’ Dalton. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, he didn’t get no respect. When Licence to Kill came out, box-office takings were pretty low and reviews were extremely mixed, most citing the fact that it didn’t have the same old Bond stuff, like the one-liners and such. I’ve never understood that mentality. You get given the same thing over and over again and given the choice, you’ll plump for the familiar every time. It’s that attitude that has led Hollywood into one of its biggest creative slumps in years. God, I hate people so damn much.

“Señor Bond, you got big cojones. You come here, to my place, without references, carrying a piece, throwing around a lot of money… but you should know something: nobody saw you come in, so nobody has to see you go out.” 

After his friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) has his bride murdered and is mutilated by sharks, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) quits MI6 and goes rogue, going on a personal vendetta mission against the man responsible, drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). Bond enlists the help of CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and Sanchez’s maltreated girlfriend Lupe (Talisa Soto) to take down the scumlord and his smuggling operation. I love Licence to Kill‘s plot. Bond going rogue is such a cool idea and it’s pulled off extremely well. It’s a hell of a lot darker and violent than previous Bonds (to date, it is the only film in the series to be rated “15”) and it works. It’s definitely got the spirit of the Fleming novels down. It’s refreshing that the villain isn’t some wacko trying to take over the world. He’s just a drug baron with power and stacks of cash aplenty.

Dalton fucking nails it in this one. He was great in The Living Daylights, but I always felt his performance was a little compromised. Here he gets to let loose and get all intense-like. Carey Lowell is also one of the best Bond girls. She’s a CIA agent who can actually do stuff, unlike Dr. Diana Dicklick in Moonraker. Her growing relationship with Bond is believable and heartfelt. Talisa Soto is more of a traditional damsel in distress Bond lass, but she’s still good. Robert Davi is great as Sanchez, he’s fucking psychotic and downright scary. His entrance to the film is catching Lupe in bed with another man and cutting out the guy’s heart. JESUS. I also love the young Benicio Del Toro playing Dario in this. He’s a right little shit. The film also wins massive plus points from me for bringing back the only memorable and decent Felix Leiter in the form of David Hedison. Some audience familiarity was needed and it totally works. Robert Brown also finally convinces as M. He gets some really good little beats and his scene with Bond just before he goes rogue is awesome.

Licence to Kill doesn’t feel like a Bond film, which I think is one of its major strengths. Whilst sticking to the formula can produce great results (The Spy Who Loved Me), most of the time it produces crap after crap. Licence to Kill forgets all about the Bond tropes and focuses on Bond’s personal story. Apart from OHMSS, this film is probably the best look at the man behind the wry smile and tuxedo. We feel Bond’s anger at the ridiculous semantics and red tape that initially stop him from avenging Leiter. Dalton always looks like he’s on the edge of snapping and it gives the film a really different feel to previous ones. This is a film that takes risks. To use the vocabulary of a complete wanker (why break with tradition?) it’s hardcore. It’s not a total free-flying flag though. For some reason it just has to include a Q scene (normally a highlight for me, but it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the film) and a bit where Bond and Bouvier get together for no real reason after a big bar fight. It’s like they had to put them in to not complete alienate the bonehead audience.

There are so many touches I like. One such moment is when Bond’s promiscuity catches up with him and Pam and Lupe meet. Never has that happened in a Bond film before and it’s an interesting moment. I love Bond infiltrating Sanchez’s organisation and becoming his friend. It really feels like an undercover cop film at that point, especially with Bond’s tinkering behind the scenes to ensure that Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) is the one who is taken down as a traitor. Krest has one of the most memorable and disgusting deaths too. Head explodey fun. It’s so good, they referenced it in Kick-Ass. Actually, I noticed a few things that have been “borrowed” from Licence to Kill by other films. There’s a bit where Sanchez’s armoured truck plunges into the sea which is used in Mission: Impossible 3. There’s also the opening plane-jacking scene in The Dark Knight Rises- a bit which I said in my review is “jaw-droppingly good and really feels like an old-school James Bond setpiece”. There’s a reason for that. It IS an old-school Bond setpiece- from this film. Can’t believe I missed that. Even Skyfall seems to be lifting from it, with a palm-reader signature gun similar to the one in this film glimpsed in the trailer.

Since I’m banging on about the action, I’ll say it’s extremely  well done. There are some great sequences, but the absolute king is the final tanker sequence and Bond’s scrap with Sanchez. It’s genuinely thrilling. It features one of my favourite Bond moments ever where Bond drives a tanker on two wheels to avoid an incoming Stinger missile. It’s awesome. The resolution involving “a genuine Felix lighter” is fantastic and almost certainly a callback to Live and Let Die. I can’t think of too many bad things to say about Licence to Kill. The previously mentioned scenes stick out like pubes in a bowl of cornflakes (i.e. easily missable, but abhorrent all the same). The dialogue ain’t all that either with some truly nail-on-the-head exchanges taking place that make my inner writer scream. Also, if someone can explain why the film ends on a blinking/winking fish fountain, get in contact. I haven’t the faintest sodding clue on that one.

“(After being denied permission to pursue Sanchez) Then you have my resignation, sir!” 
“We’re not a country club, 007!” 

Licence to Kill is one of the best Bond films in my book. It’s got a completely different flavour to the rest of the films, actually more in keeping with the recent Craig films than anything else. Dalton really gives a great performance here and it’s a shame they dicked him around so much as I’d love to have seen the general public embrace him as much as I want to. Perhaps more modern, cynical eyes will see this film for the cracking film it is.

The Living Daylights

So here it is, the last week of my Bond marathon. This time next Tuesday I’ll be free of 007’s clutches. Well, for a week and a bit and then Skyfall comes out. Still, two thirds over. If only I put this amount of effort into bettering myself. Anyway, you’re on in five, Mr. Dalton.

The Living Daylights (1987)

With Roger Moore having finally hung up the shoulder holster and gone off for a nice little sleep, the hunt was on for the fourth actor to play James Bond. After a long search of countless famous actors (Sam “Jurassic Park” Neill was the favourite for a while) the producers settled for Pierce Brosnan. That ain’t a typo- Brosnan was all but confirmed in the role and was called away at the literal 11th hour to do more Remington Steele. With both the filmmakers and Brosnan gutted, they turned to another someone who had been on their books for a long time, Timothy Dalton, who signed on and immediately immersed himself in the source novels. For the first time in the Bond franchise they had a proper actor actor.

“I only kill professionals. That girl didn’t know one end of her rifle from the other. Go ahead. Tell M what you want. If he fires me, I’ll thank him for it. “

James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is sent to protect the defecting General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé). After he refuses to kill a sniper (Maryam d’Abo) he uncovers a complicated plot involving a Russian movement to kill spies- Smiert Spionam, an American arms dealer named Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and a load of Afghan heroin. Now this is what I’m talking about! Complex but not convoluted, TLD‘s plot pops along at a fast pace involving all sorts of fun elements. It’s got the same sort of feel as the literary Bond adventures and it’s like a huge gulp of fresh air after the open mouthed sewer diving we did in A View to a Kill. There are still silly elements, but not too silly that they detract from the semi-realistic thrust of the film. It’s exaggerated but crucially shows some restraint and pulls back on the reins every now and again to keep everything on the straight and narrow.I love Dalton as Bond. He’s a lot more intense than previous Bonds, but that works. He does seem to struggle slightly with the quipping, but nowhere near enough to be a Lazenby type problem. There are a lot of subtleties to his performance that I hadn’t really picked up on until now. He’s damn good and unfairly sidelined when it comes to ranking the Bonds. I really liked Maryam d’Abo as well. She’s brave, resourceful and nowhere near the blonde bimbo she could have been drawn as. She’s lightyears ahead of Stacey Sutton in the last film. The treacherous Koskov is played well by Jeroen Krabbé. He’s not a comic book villain, he’s just a very believable selfish bastard. Same can’t be said for Joe Don Baker’s Brad Whitaker. He is a bit too ridiculous, but there’s always room for a little bit of that. Art Malik is also decent and likable. Hooray for John Rhys-Davies too.

Sweet Jesus, does this film open well. It’s got one of the best pre-credits sequences yet with Bond and two other 00s on a training mission that goes spectacularly wrong. Dalton cements himself as Bond the moment he looks all pissed off and hares after a truck. This is anti-camp. There is room for levity (did we need so many monkey reaction shots?) but as I said before, it’s balanced. It’s an incredibly well put together sequence that really kicks the film off the right way. In fact, there’s not a dud action scene to be found. Whilst the stunts have always been one of the best things about the Bond films irrelevant of film quality, some of these action beats are the best we’ve seen so far in the series. One of my favourite bits is Necros’ (Andreas Wisniewski) assault on an MI6 safehouse. It’s fucking great. Talking of fucking great things, Bond’s also back behind the wheel of an Aston Martin and the huge setpiece around it is superb. I’m less enthused by the following cello case escape, but can’t win ’em all. The third act showdown involving Bond and Necros hanging out the back of a plane is genuinely thrilling, ignoring the shoddy cardboard scenery that is occasionally visible.

“You were fantastic. We’re free!”
 “Kara, we’re inside a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan.”

There’s not much I don’t like about The Living Daylights. The titles and dreary A-ha song could both be a lot better. As good as he is, Dalton hasn’t settled into the role at this point and his discomfort with some of the more humourous bits shows. They’ve cast a new Moneypenny in the form of Caroline Bliss. She’s sexy, but not in that homely way that is essential for the part. Plus, I’m not sure if she’s joking or not when she invites Bond round to listen to her Barry Manilow collection. Dalton’s few interactions with her also seem to be a little off. The Daniel Craig era gets a lot of credit for revolutionising Bond and taking him  back to his printed roots and whilst some credits is due, praises need to be sung about Dalton’s stint too. All the grittiness and realism? He did all that 30 years before the Craighulk stepped up. It’s just that in the late ’80s audiences aren’t ready for it, but their kids are going to love it.