Rocketeer, The (United States, 1991)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Rocketeer is a superhero movie, but it's a superhero movie of a different flavor. This isn't a Batman or a Superman clone. It isn't about a vigilante out to stomp out crime or a visitor from another world using his powers to advance truth, justice, and the American way. Instead, it's about an ordinary man who is briefly given the opportunity to do extraordinary things. Anyone who watched the early '80s TV series The Greatest American Hero will understand the basic philosophy underlying The Rocketeer. (The graphic novel upon which the movie is based hit comic book stores around the same time that The Greatest American Hero made his first TV appearance.) Superpowers may be granted, but true heroism comes from the heart.

Made at a time when cynicism was beginning to suffuse the motion picture superhero genre (with Batman leading the way), The Rocketeer cheerfully tries to roll back the years by about a half-century. Not only is it set in the late 1930s, it adopts the feel and approach of the B-movie serials that were so popular in those days. The Rocketeer has all the ingredients that were once so popular in the movies: a whitebread hero with a good heart, a sexpot girlfriend with ample cleavage and a stunning smile, a dastardly villain with thoughts of world domination, and lots and lots of action. Director Joe Johnston (who had previously helmed Honey I Shrunk the Kids and would go on to do Jumanji) consciously goes for a retro feel, and, for the most part, it's successful. A sardonic, modern version of The Rocketeer wouldn't work nearly as well.

It's Hollywood, 1938. Although a war rages in Europe, the United States remains mostly isolated, and the West Coast mecca of motion pictures is deserving of the name of "Tinseltown." Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) is a daredevil test pilot who enjoys his job but doesn't have much money. His girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), is an aspiring actress who loves Cliff, but thinks he takes her for granted. So it's no surprise that when the debonair Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the "third biggest box office draw", takes an interest in Jenny, she's smitten. Meanwhile, Cliff's career is in as much trouble as his love life. A plane he had hoped to fly in competition has crashed and burned, and he's left with too little money and too little time to set up something new, even with the help of his genius inventor/repairman sidekick, Peevy (Alan Arkin). Then fate intervenes.

A gang of crooks has stolen a top-secret rocket backpack from Howard Hughes. Pursued by the FBI, they ditch it in Cliff's hanger, where he finds it. After a few experiments to see how it works, he straps it on and The Rocketeer (as the papers dub him) is born. But, while Cliff's intentions are to use the pack only for honorable purposes and return it to the legitimate owner upon request, others want it for darker reasons, and they're willing to do almost anything to get it. Soon, Cliff finds himself pursued by gangsters, Nazis, and a big, ugly man with a rubber mask.

The box office failure of The Rocketeer was a surprise in more ways than one. First, it seemed to appeal to a large portion of the audience that had pushed 1990's Dick Tracy over the $100 million mark. Secondly, it was a product of family-friendly Walt Disney Pictures and was released with a mild PG rating. And third, it was a comic book adaptation, a genre that was becoming increasingly popular in that time period. It's not clear why the film failed to excite movie-goers, although the retro approach may have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, however, The Rocketeer's failure to take off at the box office ensured that there would be no sequel.

The film has something of the feel of the Indiana Jones movies, albeit without the self-referential humor. There's a lot of action and more than a few "How's he going to get out of this?" moments. As is often the case with movies of this sort, character development is not a focal point. As a result, we get thinly-sketched types: the likable hero, his irascible mentor, the gorgeous girlfriend, and the charming villain. They're comic book type individuals, which shouldn't be all that surprising, considering The Rocketeer's pedigree.

There's more gunplay and violence than we have come to expect from a Magic Kingdom production (more than one character meets a grisly end), but Disney wasn't as smothered in political correctness ten years ago as it is today. In 2000, it's unlikely that the studio would have released this under their own label; instead, it would have been farmed out to Touchstone Pictures or Hollywood Pictures. And, with the MPAA's increasingly erratic standards for classifications, who knows whether The Rocketeer would be given a PG or a PG-13?

The Rocketeer contains a fair number of special effects, most of which are "old-fashioned" as opposed to computer generated. (The film came out just as CGI effects were beginning to make their presence felt. One of the pioneering computer effects films, Terminator 2, arrived in theaters two weeks after The Rocketeer, and, to a degree, may have been in part responsible for this film's poor performance. T2 took no prisoners in slaughtering the competition.) The flying sequences are surprisingly believable (compare these to the cheesy visuals in the Superman movies), and the climactic sequence on the dirigible is far more impressive than James Bond's blimp escapade in A View to a Kill.

When it comes to actors, The Rocketeer doesn't exactly have a top-notch cast. The lead, Bill Campbell, is pretty stiff - it's no surprise that his career really didn't go anywhere (although he's now one of the stars of the TV series "Once and Again", opposite Sela Ward). Jennifer Connelly, who was 20 at the time the film went into production, was just beginning to make her mark in Hollywood. Dressed in an elaborate, low cut gown, she looks every bit the part of a '30s starlet - but her function is largely ornamental. The part of Jenny requires more posing than acting. (It should be noted that Connelly has always fared well in period pieces - observe her work in films like Mulholland Falls, Dark City, and Inventing the Abbotts. She has the kind of looks that remind directors of actresses from Hollywood's golden era.) Alan Arkin hams it up a little as the Geppeto-like Peevy, while Timothy Dalton (having taken his last turn as 007) shows great panache as an over-the-top bad guy. Paul Sorvino plays gangster Eddie Valentine and Terry O'Quinn (post-The Stepfather and pre-The Cutting Edge) has the small-but-important role as Howard Hughes.

Nostalgia certainly plays a role in The Rocketeer's success. Of course, the Hollywood of Johnston's picture isn't a place that ever really existed, but it's the kind of wonderland where we imagine all of the great films of the '30s and '40s coming from. Often, when it comes to triggering thoughts of bygone days, fantasy is more potent than reality. Throwing in the occasional real-life person, like Clark Gable and W. C. Fields, only strengthens the illusion. The Rocketeer looks back on Hollywood through the proverbial rose-tinted glasses, showing us what we want to see.

Musically, The Rocketeer is something of a disappointment. Every superhero movie needs a great score. John Williams' theme is as crucial to Superman's identity as his blue-and-red costume. Danny Elfman's brooding title track for Batman was one of the best things about the 1989 film and its 1992 sequel. For The Rocketeer, however, James Horner gives us a standard score filled with predictable, uninspired cues. Bits and piece of the music appear to have been lifted wholesale from some of his previous soundtracks (Star Trek II and Aliens in particular). There's not a musical moment in The Rocketeer than is memorable, and that's unfortunate.

In the end, however, The Rocketeer was probably done in by its old-fashioned attitude and approach. For the Batman-weaned teenage boy, the violence is too tame, the hero too human, and the action too corny. There's no leather, no repressed S&M, and no gloomy Gotham City. Where Batman uses shadows and murk, The Rocketeer uses unnaturally colorful backdrops. Oddly, a mere decade later, The Rocketeer has aged more gracefully than Batman. Movie-goers look back with fondness on the failed Disney movie, while subpar sequels and a realization that the first installment was all smoke, Nicholson, and mirrors have diminished the Caped Crusader's reputation. The Rocketeer may not be perfect, but it's an excellent example of how to adapt a comic book to the screen.

Rocketeer, The (United States, 1991)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1991-06-21
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1