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The talented Joe Johnston has been contributing solid film work for decades, even from before his stint designing miniatures for the original Star Wars. He's worked with Spielberg and Lucas and began directing in the late 1980s with the amusing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Johnston's second directing assignment, the big-screen launch of a hero from a graphic novel, promised to be a much bigger affair. The success of 1989's Batman surely greased the wheels for more comic book adaptations; but Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer was probably a stretch. Neither fashionably violent nor existentially nihilistic, the novel takes a nostalgic approach to superhero-dom as it was formulated in the 1940s. Clearly inspired by Republic's great "Rocket Man" serials, Stevens added his own love of aviation illustration and cheesecake glamour work. Clean-cut straight shooter hero Cliff Secord flies streamlined racing planes by day and by night dates pin-up model Betty, who is a dead ringer for the cult nudie-cutie Bettie Page, an icon well-known to young boys who read in bed with the aid of a flashlight. The charm of Stevens' work is its Art Deco look and clean compositions, but it also appeals to fans of '30s and '40s pulp iconography.
Joe Johnston's 1991 adaptation The Rocketeer retains almost all of the ingredients of the original books. It accepts the punishment that goes along with not catering to the young audience of 1991, who didn't know Republic Pictures from the Republican Party. Viewers that appreciate a feel for an earlier era of old-fashioned moviemaking and virtuous heroes and heroines, can really get into this picture.
Aided by his mechanic-sidekick Peevy (Alan Arkin), airplane racer Cliff Secord experiments with a compact rocket pack found in the car of a fleeing gangster. FBI man Fitch (Ed Lauter) and Los Angeles nightclub racketeer Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) deploy their minions to recover the rocket pack, which Cliff and Peevy carefuly refine, adding a helmet with a steering fin to aid its maneuverability. Cliff neglects his gorgeous actress girlfriend Jenny (to-die-for Jennifer Connelly), not knowing that her efforts to gain a speaking part in a Hollywood swashbuckler put her in contact with another man who wants to acquire the amazing flying gear: mega-movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Cliff has been seen flying the rig, and the headlines announce the arrival of a new mystery man, "The Rocketeer". He wants to turn the machine over to the proper authorities, but decides not to when the bad guys kidnap Jenny. The only way to get her back is to sneak into Valentine's swanky mob-run nightclub, and steal Jenny away from the villainous Neville.
The Rocketeer has plenty of action and intrigue, involving some great gangsters and just-the-facts FBI agents, who are soon augmented by a lethally-skilled swashbuckling movie star/traitor and his Nazi commandos. Paul Sorvino makes a terrific post- Goodfellas mob boss. A still-sane Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) makes an appearance, as does Sinclair's hulking assassin Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor), who with the aid of makeup man Rick Baker just happens to look exactly like Rondo Hatton, the shuddery Creeper of 1940s Universal shockers.
At this point Disney was still pushing family-only entertainment, so forget about the pin-up potential of the film's Jenny: she's a stunning, yet perfectly poised lady who aspires to become a movie star, not a nude model. The violence is noisy but grue-free, which is also nicely in keeping with the period. The film's lavish production values give us a vintage airfield, a 'California art' diner in the shape of a bulldog, and a fabulous L.A. Night Spot with a bandstand built on a fountain and a clamshell that opens to reveal a slinky vocalist. Director Johnston's art background insures a fabulous look for the entire film. The designs of everything from Cliff's leather flying jacket to an enormous dirigible are enjoyable, just in themselves.
I.L.M. produced the visual effects for The Rocketeer, which are as good as pre-CGI effects get. Cliff launches with the whine of a turbine and a blast of flame that we would imagine should char his legs into matchsticks. But this is The Movies, and we don't worry about that any more than we do the helmet which seemingly requires Cliff to risk having his neck broken, should he suddenly turn his head at a high airspeed.
The screenplay captures vintage banter without making things too obvious. The airmen are a bunch of earnest galoots. Jon Polito's entrepreneur is a nice guy who must watch as the flying circus barnstormers cause havoc at his airdrome. True-blue patriotism is the order of the day, with O'Quinn's Howard Hughes showing Cliff and Peevy a nifty captured German propaganda film promoting the idea of a Nazi army of airborne rocket men swarming over our nation's capital. 1
To my taste Johnston does everything right with the direction of The Rocketeer, yet I can see why the movie didn't set the world on fire. Billy Campbell is good as Cliff, but he doesn't make an instant impact as an action dude or a romantic hero. Part of this can be chalked up to the actor's style -- he seems a grown-up Hardy Boy -- and part of it is written into a character with no intrinsic dramatic interest. Jenny is already Cliff's girl, and even if his new plane is ruined, he's still a fine pilot. Cliff's interest in the rocket pack is purely for the thrill. Although he says it's exhilarating, even with all of his cool zooming through the clouds, we aren't transported into vicarious flight as we were with Christopher Reeve's Superman. The show instead hedges its bets with the kiddie crowd, ending Cliff's early flights with goofy crash landings only a few notches better than your average Shook Up Shopping Cart show. "I LIKE it!" shouts Cliff, providing a quickie line for every trailer and TV spot.
Finally, The Rocketeer is loaded with gee-whiz & hurray moments. I saw it new at the El Capitan and the audience was certainly impressed. They approved of Cliff's heroic launches into the air, and reacted to the nicely-judged patriotic moments, as when Cliff poses atop the Griffith Observatory before the Stars 'n' Stripes. The Rocketeer could actually use more emphasis on its cornball emotional content. Movies like this were (and could still be) mass audience experiences. Cliff Secord's rocket jockey should be the kind of hero who brings infantile tears to our eyes every time he lights up and zooms off. Everybody else in the picture gets his or her appropriate magic moment. Paul Sorvino's anti-Nazi speech elicited the biggest applause. Lothar inspired laughter and whoops every time he storms into the frame, and the line "You ain't bulletproof, Frankenstein" got a big response as well. Jennifer Connelly's retaliation against the wolfish Neville Sinclair put her lovely character into bold relief (dramatically speaking). And Timothy Dalton proves again that he's great with this kind of action comedy -- he brings a fine edge to the slimy Sinclair. 2
But Cliff doesn't really command in his own star vehicle. Chris Reeve made women swoon and boys choke up when he asserted that he always told the truth, and when he exchanged patriotic salutes with the American Flag. Cliff's a good guy, but he hasn't got a theme beyond saving his girl ... and his rocket pack really isn't a part of his permanent identity.
It's a sad thing that The Rocketeer didn't continue, as the characters have so much potential. A possible sequel is certainly suggested at the climax. The show remains a pleasure to see and enjoy: a comic book movie that isn't a celebration of vengeance or an insult to our intelligence. I suppose that Marvel's first Iron Man movie more or less updates this basic concept in high style and good humor.
Disney's Blu-ray of The Rocketeer looks much better than the existing DVD, with a smoother picture. A much beefier soundtrack takes advantage of the contrast between luxurious 30s swing ballads and Cliff's noisy blowtorch of a flying pack. Fans of this film will be very pleased from that angle.
I guess when a Disney picture's performance doesn't please the front office, it really gets shoved to the back of the vault. The disc offers a trailer but not a thing more in extras, which is a shame considering the level of artistry and good directorial judgment on view. I for one would like to know if, in 1991, Cliff's flying scenes were augmented by digital wire removal. (I know all about Cinefex, but those Special Effects magazines are expensive!) By 1991 I.L.M. must have been geared up to produce the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, so perhaps there's more CGI work here than meets the eye.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Rocketeer Blu-ray rates:
1. The exciting animated Nazi movie is in the style of American (specifically Disney) wartime short subjects that picture the Nazi menace as a plague spreading world-wide. It's amusing to see a representation of this kind of film from the other side, when the Nazis really didn't go in for such things in a big way. In any event, why would they tout a secret weapon? -- it's comparable to The Manhattan Project publicizing its efforts to produce the A-Bomb, with clever audio-visual aids! Let's just say that the film was put together for Adolph's eyes only. SMALL>
2. As Sinclair's character is a dead ringer for Errol Flynn, the movie raises the still-active accusation that Flynn was a closeted Nazi sympathizer doing work for the Germans during WW2. I am uncomfortable with these rumors, even without knowing much about the case or the "evidence". The tacit reference to this association gives The Rocketeer a slightly "off" taste at times.
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T'was Ever Thus.