THE ROCKETEER (Joe Johnston, 1991)
In 1999 Joe Johnston directed a film about rocket boys (OCTOBER SKY); eight years earlier he made a movie about a rocket man. THE ROCKETEER, based on Dave Stevens’ graphic novel, is an old-fashioned adventure set in 1938 Los Angeles.
A stolen jetpack is stashed at the airfield where pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and mechanic/engineer/inventor A. “Peevy” Peabody (Alan Arkin) work. Cliff finds the rocket-powered backpack hidden under the seat in an old plane and can’t wait to give it a whirl. Before strapping it on he wisely uses a test dummy of sorts to see how it operates. Peevy works out the pack’s design kinks and constructs a stylish helmet. When disaster threatens to strike at an air show, Cliff dons the pack and helmet to save a fellow pilot. His heroics dazzle the audience and press, and the next thing Cliff knows he’s on the front page of the paper and dubbed “the rocketeer”.
Of course, a jetpack doesn’t appear out of thin air, and soon enough the feds, gangsters, and a giant henchman are all in hot pursuit of Cliff. Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) created the contraption, and Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the third biggest box office attraction in Hollywood, hired the tough Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his men to steal it. The government hoped to employ it as a military weapon in the war against the Nazis. Now they just want to get it back lest it fall into the wrong hands.
Cliff’s voluptuous girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), an aspiring starlet consigned to non-speaking extra roles, is placed in danger when Neville learns Cliff has the jetpack. Neville charms the porcelain-skinned beauty and then abducts her to force the hero to exchange the rocket-propelled transport for the girl.
THE ROCKETEER is steeped in the 30s serials that also inspired the Indiana Jones films, and it briskly delivers one cliffhanger after another. It isn’t difficult to imagine seeing this in segments spread over several weeks with breaks at key moments, such as when Jenny is taken to Neville’s home or when the climactic battle ensues on a zeppelin. Audiences in 1938 might have greatly anticipated the next episode. Maybe that period specificity was part of its downfall at the box office as 1991 crowds shelled out a mere $46.7 million, not quite the success needed for a blockbuster or franchise starter. THE ROCKETEER isn’t as thrilling as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or the other two Indy movies, but it possesses a uniquely innocent charm. This is the kind of movie in which someone can exclaim, “Gosh!” without drawing snickers, at least if the viewers aren’t too jaded. Those in search of a good family film would do well to sample THE ROCKETEER.
THE ROCKETEER succeeds as an origination tale even if Campbell makes for too bland of a hero to command the screen. Cliff is a straight arrow with tunnel vision, which essentially drains him of comedic possibilities, but Campbell does have a boyish sincerity that serves him well. If Campbell lacks pizzazz, Dalton makes up for it as the lusty Errol Flynn-like villain. Connelly provides a hint of the sexpot that would emerge in other roles.
The film’s most memorable aspect is its beautiful reconstruction of the period. Cliff and other pilots hang out at the Bulldog Café, an example of then popular kitsch architecture. Production designer Jim Bissell and art director Christopher Burian-Mohr bring the decade to life with lush art deco sets. (Sadly, the outstanding art deco poster used for THE ROCKETEER'S theatrical release has been replaced on the DVD cover with a conventional montage of film images.)
THE ROCKETEER is a throwback to when movie heroes weren’t burdened by irony or existential angst. Although THE ROCKETEER was an anachronism upon its release, and is probably even more of one fourteen years later, in the dedicated, workmanlike Cliff it presents the great American hero. He does whatever is necessary to protect his loved ones and his country with no regard for personal safety or glory. THE ROCKETEER may not have the coolest or most exciting hero, but the film is worth revisiting to remind us of personal qualities that never go out of style.
(This is a revised version of my DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)