CULT CORNER: The Rocketeer (1991)

Cal revisits Joe Johnston’s first stab at a period comic book movie in this underrated gem.

Who made it?: Joe Johnston (Director), Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo (Writers), Lawrence Gordon, Charles Gordon, Lloyd Levin (Producers), Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn.

Tagline: “Three years before the United States declares war, Cliff Secord leads America’s first battle against the Nazis.”

IMDb rating: 6.3/10.

Before comic book adaptations became a dime a dozen in the 21st Century, such ventures were risky gambles for studios. Although 1978’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman were massive money-makers, other endeavours were less successful at the box office. One such financial flop was 1991’s The Rocketeer, a Disney-produced adaptation of the series of graphic novels by Dave Stevens. Best described as Iron Man meets Captain America by way of Indiana Jones, it’s easy to fall in love with this gem, as its sincerity and spirit remain completely enchanting all these years on. With director Joe Johnston embracing the serial tone of the source material, The Rocketeer is a delightfully-assembled superhero feature; a robust demonstration of how to properly adapt a comic for the big screen.

Set in 1938, ambitious pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and his loyal mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) seek to make it big in aerial racing, but their prized plane is destroyed. In the aftermath, the boys discover a stolen jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), and decide to use it for personal gain rather than returning it to the government. Before long, Secord straps on the jetpack, becoming a high-flying superhero known to the public as The Rocketeer. However, there are others who want the rocket – not only the government, but also a group of mobsters working for dashing Hollywood movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Secord’s actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) also becomes unwittingly involved.

Luckily, the years have been extremely kind to The Rocketeer – it has lost none of its appeal over the past two decades. The movie’s detractors often claim that nostalgia plays a large part in anyone’s enjoyment of it, but I watched the movie for the first time as a 23-year-old, and found it enrapturing. The Rocketeer works because its not an idiotic special effects demo reel, but rather a proper movie, with a fully-fleshed narrative which permits room for dramatic growth and character development. Sure, there’s not much depth at play here or anything, but it excels in the areas which matter the most.

Johnston worked behind the scenes on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was visibly aiming for an Indiana Jones vibe here. He also doesn’t balk from firearms or shootouts, and such sequences have genuine punch (as opposed to the PG-13 shite of today). Some of the grisly deaths are a bit unexpected since this is a Disney movie, but The Rocketeer was produced in the 1990s, back before the studio’s over-the-top political correctness resulted in live-action movies like John Carter and Old Dogs. But although it’s hard-edged, The Rocketeer knows how to have fun, and a “dark and gritty” take on the source material would be utterly boring. Johnston maintains a sugary matinee vibe that’s thoroughly infectious, and there’s a smattering of intentional cheese which helps to make the movie so damn entertaining. Johnston also embraces several staples of old-school Hollywood – there are gangsters, Tommy guns, moustache-twirling villains, feds, and even Nazis.

Disney wound up spending more money than expected on the flick, and every cent appears on-screen, with lavish production values and stylish visuals, not to mention competent filmmaking right down the line. When Cliff straps on the jetpack, The Rocketeer undeniably roars to life – the solid direction coupled with James Horner’s hugely operatic score provokes goosebumps with seemingly little effort. These are the types of action sequences which make you stand up and cheer with a big dumb grin on your face, and they’re every bit as entertaining today as they were over twenty years ago. Although ILM’s special effects look a tad dated at times, it hardly matters. And besides, the effects contribute to the film’s retro charm. However, the lack of action is a bit disappointing. There’s a lot of build-up as Cliff gets accustomed to his flaming backpack, but the heroic payoff is rather minuscule. The picture does work on its own terms, but more scenes of confident rocketeeting would’ve made for a more satisfying experience.

As Cliff, the little-known Campbell was always an odd choice, but he nails it, showing he had the chops to become an A-list star. Campbell comes across as a sweet guy, but he also has a rougher side to him, and looks believable as he throws punches and flies around with the jetpack. As the token love interest, Connelly is drool-worthy eye candy. She was only twenty at the time of filming, and looks absolutely gorgeous, not to mention she has talent to boot. Added to this, Connelly looks every bit like a 30s-era starlet, making her an ideal pick for the role. Also great is former 007 Dalton, who’s pitch-perfect as the arrogant Errol Flynn-esque star, whilst also succeeding as a moustache-twirling antagonist. It’s a hammy performance and his German accent is questionable, but Dalton fits in with the tone of the enterprise beautifully. In the supporting cast, Arkin is terrific, while the likes of O’Quinn and Paul Sorvino make a great impression.

Disney wanted The Rocketeer to become a franchise, but it barely recouped its production costs at the box office and sequel plans were killed, much to the disappointment of many. Ultimately, severe mismarketing is to blame for The Rocketeer‘s humiliating box office death, as the House of Mouse portrayed the picture as too much of a kiddie fare. The widely used one-sheet poster was beautifully retro but niche, and even the Blu-ray cover art makes the movie out to be far softer than it is. Indeed, Disney’s marketing needed to emphasise the material’s harder edge to make it an easier sell for the adults. Since the lack of jetpack action is perhaps the movie’s only disappointment, its a true cinematic crime that the planned trilogy never came to pass. It’s particularly deflating since the movie would lead directly into a sequel, and you walk away wanting to spend more time with these characters. Nevertheless, it’s at least comforting to know that we’ll always have this 1991 gem in our video libraries for many years to come.

Best Scene

The origin of the jetpack is beautifully told through the medium of animation in the film’s retro grace note.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Johnny Depp was nearly cast as Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer.
  • Originally was supposed to be preceded in theaters by a Roger Rabbit cartoon called “Hare in my Soup”, unfortunately the cartoon was never made.
  • Frank Darabont did some uncredited work on the screenplay.
  • In the original graphic novel, Cliff’s girlfriend is called Betty Page, not Jenny Blake. Dave Stevens based the character “Betty Page” upon his real-life friend, 50s pin-up girl Bettie Page.
  • The original inventor of the rocket pack was thirties pulp novel hero Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, in the original graphic comic book by Stevens. However, because licensing considerations, Disney did not seek permission from Conde Nast, the copyright holder of Doc Savage, and opted to substitute Doc Savage with the flamboyant billionaire Howard Hughes.



1 Comment

  1. Michael Young says:

    It’s a shame this was never a trilogy, I got the Blu-ray recently and watched it for the first time, I absolutely loved it, I wouldn’t exactly call it one of my favourite films of all time, or Hell, maybe not even one of my ten favourite Disney movies, but again, I loved it. I really regret never seeing it as a kid, had I had the VHS tape at the time, I probably would have worn it into the ground.

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