In 10 Words or Less
Thankfully the movie is good, because the Blu-Ray...
Loves: The Rocketeer, Jennifer Connelly
Likes: Pulp fiction
Dislikes: The lack of Rocketeer sequels
Hates: Decidedly un-special special editions
When I was a kid, I don't know if there was a cooler superhero than The Rocketeer. His costume was more incredible than anyone else's, especially that helmet with the two arched eye holes and the stylish leather jacket with the buttoned chest cover. He could fly with a rocket-pack that shot flames out the back. He had the hottest girlfriend (whose inspiration was yet unknown to you.) If you were a guy and you didn't want to be pilot Cliff Secord, you were lying to yourself (or you just hadn't had the luck to have been introduced to him through Dave Stevens' stunningly gorgeous indie comics.) He was everything a hero should be and he was simply friggin' awesome. Then, they went and made a movie of him, which took matters to a whole new level.
Now, this was in 1991. Yes, we had already been introduced to Tim Burton's vision of Batman, but this was before it felt like every month brought another comic-book adaptation to the theaters. Comic-book movies were still something special, and that went double for The Rocketeer. Directed by Joe Johnston, a man who cut his teeth in the serial-inspired worlds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, working on, among other things, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, The Rocketeer is a love letter to the old-school adventure films that inspired these legendary series. Set in the late 1930s, it's awash in glitz, glamour, style and over-the-top action fun, as Cliff (Billy Campbell) finds himself in possession of a stolen rocket pack, and the FBI, the mob and a few other interested parties are hot on his trail. But all Cliff really wants to do is fly.
A Hollywood tale, told in part through Cliff's aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly,) the film captures the past beautifully, through art-deco design and the use of real celebrities from the era, including names like Clark Gable, W.C. Fields and Howard Hughes (obviously played by impersonators.) This helps ground the Rocketeer in reality (and pays off in a nice gag toward the end.) But that effort is somewhat just to give the audience an in, as the movie mainly trades in the wonderfully ridiculous, be it the star of Jenny's latest project, roguish Brit Neville Sinclaire (Timothy Dalton) or right-out-of-Dick Tracy bad guy Lothar (Tiny Ron.) To explain what happens in this film is to ruin it, but suffice to say, there's a lot of flying, a lot of shooting, a lot of explosions and Jennifer Connelly looks amazing. Logic doesn't have much a place in this world, and there's quite a bit of hand-holding to make sure the audience understands what's going on, but there's are plenty of simple thrills to be had and they, again like Connelly, look fantastic.That the cast is rather solid top to bottom (with Campbell playing his smooth pilot with All-American likeability) serves to make it even more enjoyable.
One of the main reasons why the film is so much fun and why the Rocketeer is such a great hero is his lack of polish. Simply put, Cliff's not perfect and he screws things up. And though he's certainly got charm right out of the Lucas-era Harrison Ford playbook, he's not a lady-killer. It's easy to cheer for a guy when he actually could use a cheerleader. He's also got a great sidekick in his engineer pal Peevy (Alan Arkin) and a great foil in Dalton, who chews the scenery nearly as well as he would decades later on Chuck. But in the end, the cool factor of that outfit and allure of the concept of a rocket pack is hard to deny. And when he stands next to the American flag, pistol in hand, facing his future, ready to take off, striking an iconic, heroic pose, you can't help but just become a grinning 10-year-old, shouting "That's so cool!" Because it is. And so is this movie.
This film arrives on one Blu-Ray disc, in a standard BD keepcase. The disc features a animated main menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the languages and check out the extra. Audio options include English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and French Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks (the French is omitted on the box), but subtitles are available in English SDH and French.
The 2.35:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer honestly looks great for a film of its age, considering the lack of effort put into the rest of this package. The image is strong and nicely detailed, without any real noticeable digital defects, though it suffers a touch from some softness here and there and some excessive noise and/or grain in the darker moments. When it's good though, which is most of the time, it is terrific, to the point where you can see individual stitches in Secord's leather jacket. The color palette, which leans heavily on earth tones, comes across appropriately, while the black levels are sufficiently deep, and the overall image is impressively clean, minus some very minor specks here and there. It's pretty safe to say, you've never seen The Rocketeer look this good (unless you happened to have attended the D23 screening in June of 2011.) The only genuine negative is a result of the quality, as the visual effects are dramatically obvious thanks to the clarity of the image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track won't blow you away the way you'd expect for a film about a man with a rocket pack on his back, but that's just the film's age showing again. For the most part, it's a pretty conventional mix, maintaining clean, clear dialogue up front, with a few moments of surround effects during the flying sequences and shoot-outs, and some low-key LFE action, but the music, thankfully, gets some real support in the surrounds, helping it make this film feel like the sweeping serial epics it pays homage to. There's nothing bad about the presentation, but it doesn't stack up to more modern marvels.
What an incredible missed opportunity. When you call a release the "20th Anniversary Edition," you expect something in terms of extras, right? Instead, all you get is a standard-definition full-frame trailer. And what's worse, it's a pretty bad trailer, filled with spoilers, that makes a fun film seem rather hackney. The disc's producer was so embarrassed by this that, in order to not have to put "Bonus Feature" on the menu instead of "Bonus Features," they made "Info" a bonus feature. You know the screen that says "The opinions expressed in the commentary and special features do not represent, etc..."? They labeled that as an EXTRA, when it doesn't even belong, because there are no opinions to be heard!
Now, I know that Kevin Smith did a panel at the D23 20th Anniversary screening of the film with Johnston, Campbell, the writers, Rick Baker and artist William Stout. Someone had to have been rolling a camera on that (even if it is available for free as an audio podcast on Smith's Smodcast network.) And if not that, how about some retrospective interviews? Or the behind-the-scenes footage shown at the screening? Perhaps some concept art? Photos of the memorabilia at the D23 event? A nod to the late great Dave Stevens? This is a movie that deserves some respect, even if just because it helped set the stage for Johnston's success with Captain America.
The Bottom Line
Your humble reviewer may be part of the last generation that has a real connection to the time and genre that gave birth to The Rocketeer, so younger audiences may not react to his high-flying pulpy adventures with quite such enthusiasm, but this film has enough fun and excitement to keep viewers interest even without the aid of nostalgia. Unfortunately, there are no real extras to help encourage and cultivate new fans or satisfy longtime followers, but the presentation's quality is very nice. Perhaps at a lower price in the future this disc will find new audiences, but this release doesn't offer much to goose sales of an underrated and sadly overlooked film.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.