Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a guy with a jetpack and goofy helmet! No, it’s… well, yeah, OK, you got it right the third time. The Rocketeer, based on the short-lived comic created by Dave Stevens, was one of my first forays into comic books and film. I honestly can’t remember if I actually had seen it in the theater (I was 5, after all. And now I’ve made some of you feel old. Sorry about that.), but I do remember the various advertising, toys, commercials, and even a cartoon (which may have well been a figment of my young imagination, since I can’t find a trace of it now), and I clearly remember wanting to BE The Rocketeer. As years went by, I eventually forgot about The Rocketeer little by little(hence my spotty memory), but always got a little excited whenever someone mentioned the be-helmeted hero.

the_rocketeer_1991.jpgThe Rocketeer
Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly,
Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton
Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 1991

A while back, I read an article that the newly-signed director of the Captain America movie had previously done The Rocketeer, and decided it was time for me to revisit (possibly for the first time) this early 90’s classic. By this time, I had an extensive knowledge of 1030’s movie serials, especially Radar Men from the Moon starring Commando Cody, another jetpack-and-helmet guy, as well as some background on the actor Errol Flynn, something I didn’t think I’d need for this movie.

The Rocketeer is the story of 1930’s stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his first adventure after finding an experimental jetpack designed by Howard Hughes after a run-in with some mobsters. The mobsters, led by crime boss Eddie Valentine, had stolen the jetpack for crooked actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Why? Now that’s the real mystery. Anyways, Cliff and mechanic friend Peevy (Alan Arkin) find the jetpack, and almost immediately go about testing it out and making modifications to make it a little “user friendly.” They also argue about whether they should turn the pack over tho the Feds, who had chased the mobsters to the airfield where they ditched the jetpack, and are currently combing the area for said pack. To add to the plot, Cliff is also having problems in his relationship with his actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) and has been reduced to a demeaning “Clown Act” at the airfield.

Cliff and Peevy continue to test the pack in secret, but after destroying the set where Jenny was filming (a Neville Sinclair film, mind you), and showing up late at the airfield for his stunt show, Cliff is forced to use the pack in public while saving a retired pilot who took his clown plane in an attempt to save Cliff’s job. The newspapers go crazy over the “flying man” and dub him The Rocketeer. What follows is the standard “run away from danger/run towards danger” shtick involving Cliff, Valentine’s mob, Sinclair, and Sinclair’s hulking brute Lothar. The film ends with the revelation that Sinclair is in actuality a Nazi spy, and a final battle inside and on top of a Nazi Zeppelin. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and there is a definite hint that there could be more adventures to come.

First thing I noticed about The Rocketeer was that it bore a serious resemblance to the Indiana Jones franchise. I first dismissed this as merely coincidental. I mean, they are both films made to resemble old movie serials after all. End of story, right? Well, after a little more digging, I discovered that the film had been in “development hell,” or permanent shelving, since 1983, putting its release a mere two year after Raiders of the Lost Ark. From what I have gathered, Disney had originally wanted to catch some to the Indy fanbase, and build The Rocketeer into a successful multi-film franchise. This would also explain the incredibly open ending the movie has.

Speaking of Disney, I’m not entirely sold on the decision to produce the film under their main production company. The Rocketeer seems to be slightly hindered by being retained to the strict “family-friendly” restrictions Disney imposes. Maybe under the Touchstone or Miramax banner it would have found a little more success. I mean, it worked for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, right?

Visually, The Rocketeer succeeds in recreating the old serial feel. The sets, the costuming, even the classic cars used definitely invoke a 1930’s feel. The special effects, while not anything spectacular even by early 1991 standards, fit well into the story, and never overshadows the story or look oddly out-of-place. The music is also nothing to write home about, but meshes well against the setting and works well within the context of the movie.

Bill Campbell does an excellent job as the clumsy Cliff Secord. Throughout the film, he never lets up on the good-natured, headstrong, in-over-his-head act, and it worked really well. Even in the serious moments, Campbell portrayed the everyman, a normal guy that just happens to have an awesome jetpack. If only I could say the same for the rest of the cast.

In short, this movie made me realize that I am not a fan of Alan Arkin. There is absolutely nothing to his acting. Good actors make you believe that the characters they are portraying could be real, or at least real in the context and settings of the film. Arkin does little more that regurgitate his lines in a very unappealing deadpan manner. There was little inflection in his voice, this comedic lines fell flat, and he constantly had this look of a man who doesn’t want to be in this movie. Jennifer Connelly didn’t fare much better, but to be honest, she gets a pass because she was at least nice to look at. And I may have imagined it, but I honestly believe she may have been a cardboard stand-up in one scene.

However, all that lack of acting is balanced out nicely by Timothy Dalton. If you ever wanted to see a man do a wonderful impression of swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn and literally chew every single bit of scenery, then this movie is for you. I know Dalton’s Sinclair was supposed to be flamboyant, but man was Sinclair flamboyant. This actually leads me to my major problem with the film.

Within the first 15 minutes of the film, we discover that Neville Sinclair is the main villain of the film. I think this is a wasted opportunity for a grand surprising reveal later on in the movie. In fact, we know he’s the bad guy before we know he’s an actor, for cryin’ out loud! Having blown that twist, we’re left with the revelation that he’s a secret Nazi. While it work in the context of the movie, it welt a little force to me. If I were the director, I would have either made the bad guys Nazis from the start, or given Sinclair a different reason for wanting the pack. The director chose both, and the ending suffers for it.

Despite all of its faults, I ultimately enjoyed The Rocketeer. The film definitely has heart, and stays true to both the source material and the classic serials of yesteryear. And that’s the sign of a good movie. If a movie with many, many faults can still garner multiple viewings and fond memories, it has done something right. For this, I give The Rocketeer 3 ½ stars out of 5.


And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a rocket pack to build.


About Author

Sam Dunham was born at a very early age, and shortly after became entangled in the world of film. His first memories are of seeing King Ralph in his local theater. He learned to talk with the help of Adam West's Batman: The Movie. He's one of the few people to still own a working RCA Videodisc player (heck, it's where he first watched Young Frankenstein!). When Sam is not perusing his extensive B- movie collection or sitting in dark theaters with a tub of popcorn, he is usually found reading comic books, fixing computers, toiling away at his day job, working some nights at a local radio station as a "soundboard guy," and going to class so that he can one day toil away at his day job fixing computers. One time, Lou Ferrigno conned him out of $20.00. But that's another story...


  1. For some reason (perhaps general time period), The Rocketeer, The Phantom, The Shadow, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow all fall in this one particular type of film category for me. I don’t have a name for it but there is a certain feel to them.

    Whatever it is, despite the problems any one of those films has, I like it. Thanks for the review.

  2. Oh, and how about Dark City and kind of similar to this, and those other movies mentioned by Navarre… and Jennifer Conelly… MMM>.

  3. Funny timing – just this morning I was just thinking about rewatching The Rocketeer!

    I think it’s probably been a decade since I last saw it, but I remember liking it even on repeat viewings.

  4. Brent from Bloomington on

    I agree. I remember being absolutely in love with the Rocketeer and the Phantom as a kid, to the chagrin of my more discerning parents and siblings. Good call on this. I will still get excited whenever I watch these, and I get all nostalgic for I period I never lived in.

  5. Also: Cliff’s helmet is anything but goofy. It’s a really wonderful art deco design that ends up being functional as well as iconic. And the origin of how Peevey put it together is awesome…

    • Oh, I wholeheartedly agree with you on the helmet being iconic and a great example of art deco. I really meant the whole “goofy helmet” thing to come off as just a humorus opening to the review. There was no negative intent behind it.

      It’s like going to a parade and saying “Look at those goofy little Shriner cars.” Does it make them any less awesome? Nope.

  6. Wow…fire up the Wayback Machine…

    A number of years ago at the Dallas Comic-Con they held a showing of the Rocketeer with Dave Stevens. It was maybe 20-25 people in attendance. Sadly, I can’t remember anything he said, but it was a great experience.

  7. The Rocketeer, the Phantom, the Shadow, and Sky Captain are all pulp movies–that is adaptations of works that appeared in or drew heavily on the pulps. The Shadow is a pulp hero, the Phantom is a pulp hero in the comics, the Rocketeer is a retro pulp hero and so is Sky Captain. So these feel a bit like superhero movies, but they aren’t. Is that what Navarre is getting at?

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