Look! Up in the sky! Itâ€™s a bird! Itâ€™s a plane! Itâ€™s a guy with a jetpack and goofy helmet! No, itâ€™sâ€¦ 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 canâ€™t remember if I actually had seen it in the theater (I was 5, after all. And now Iâ€™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 canâ€™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.
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 â€œuser friendly.â€ 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 â€œClown Actâ€ 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 â€œflying manâ€ and dub him The Rocketeer. What follows is the standard â€œrun away from danger/run towards dangerâ€ 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 â€œdevelopment hell,â€ 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 â€œfamily-friendlyâ€ 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 Â½ stars out of 5.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a rocket pack to build.