Directed By: Joe Johnston
Screenplay By: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo
Story By: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, William Dear
Based upon the graphic novel by Dave Stevens
Produced By: Charles Gordon, Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin
Cast: Bill Campbell, Timothy Dalton, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Sorvino, Terry O'Quinn
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 108 minutes
Review Date: December 10, 2010
For those of you too young to remember the halcyon days of the summer of ‘91, let me enlighten you: It mostly involved Disney trying to shove The Rocketeer down the throats of an unprepared nation. As a moon-eyed, imaginative nine-year-old, I watched slack-jawed as Pizza Hut commercials loudly instructed me to “Blast off with the Rocketeer, against Neville Sinclair, the enemy agent!” My reaction was as follows: “Who? What? YESSSS!” Like Batman in the summer of ‘89, I begged my parents to get the Pizza Hut novelty collector’s cup shaped like the Rocketeer’s helmet, scrounged around for enough change to buy Rocketeer-themed candy and toys, rented the NES game from the local video store, and had June 21 marked on my calendar.
Then I saw the movie. Cough.
Almost 20 years later, it’s easy to see why The Rocketeer failed: Disney marketed it squarely at kids — adults need not apply — but it’s not a kids’ movie. Obviously, Disney wanted a franchise on par with Paramount’s Indiana Jones and Warner Brothers’ Batman, but those movies were not strictly for kids, either. They’re actually pretty demented, and I’m sort of amazed I saw them as young as I did. Neither Paramount nor Warner Brothers marketed the films exclusively to kids, however. That was Disney’s failing. At best, the most appealing things The Rocketeer offered to the nine-year-old me were the always-cool super-secrecy of the rocket pack, and my introduction to buxom Jennifer Connelly, dolled up to look like a ’30s starlet (I didn’t know what a ’30s starlet was back then, but gosh I wanted to find out!).
Here’s a list of things The Rocketeer revels in that non-cinephiles under the age of 30 will either not understand or not care about: film noir, ’30s serials, Golden Age Hollywood, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men, aviation history, Errol Flynn, boarding houses, Al Capone, The Killers, Rondo Hatton, art deco, and zeppelins. As an adult with a moderate obsession with this period in history, I loved every second of it while fully understanding why, as a kid, I felt so let down and betrayed by the unending marketing assault. The film is a glorious paean to not just the ’30s, but the ’30s of cinema and comic-books — the gee-whiz sense that anything can happen. The film constructs a plot that entwines history and legend into one crazy, fantastical hodgepodge.
For a kid, the Rocketeer himself is a letdown. These other franchises follow larger-than-life heroes, getting them into tight scrapes and showing how they use cunning, ingenuity, and occasionally far-fetched gadgets to get out of trouble. The Rocketeer has one power — the ability to fly with a rocket backpack — that he barely uses. The screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo is less interested in the Rocketeer as a superhero so much as the world he inhabits. As a kid, that sucked. As an adult, I’m incredibly grateful.
The story follows struggling pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), who desperately needs to win an upcoming aviation competition to keep his struggling business afloat. Together with his father figure/mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), he designs a plane that’s sure to win — until a carload of Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gangsters accidentally shoot it down while evading a pair of FBI agents (Ed Lauter, James Handy). With no money to build a new plane, and no way to make the rent on their hangar without winning the nationals, Cliff and Peevy have to resort to an old clown/stunt act that impresses rubes but humiliates the two of them.
The plot thickens when Cliff realizes the reason for the FBI/gangster shootout: They stole a secret prototype rocket pack developed by master aviator Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Cliff finds the pack (hidden by the gangsters in the aftermath of the shootout) and discovers a surefire way to make money. The theft of the rocket pack is all over the newspaper and radio, so Peevy warns against using it so extravagantly. However, when a fellow pilot puts himself in danger in an attempt to save Cliff’s job, the only way for Cliff to save him is to don the rocket pack and fly up to his plane. Needless to say, the mysterious “Rocketeer” becomes an immediate sensation.
Cliff excitedly tells his girlfriend, Jenny (Connelly), a glorified extra in B-movies starring people like Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a hammy swashbuckler obviously modeled after Errol Flynn. Sinclair overhears Cliff telling Jenny about the rocket pack, and the plot continues to thicken. Apparently, it was he who hired Valentine’s goons to steal the rocket pack in the first place. Now that he knows who has it, Neville decides he must get close to Jenny, in the hopes that he can use her to get the rocket pack. Why he wants the rocket pack, I’ll leave a mystery, but here’s a hint: Some spurious accusations about Errol Flynn’s associations with certain political parties appeared in an unauthorized, largely speculative biography in the early ’80s, and the writers used this to inform Neville Sinclair.
Lest I forget, Sinclair has a henchman, Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor), made up to look and sound eerily like Rondo Hatton, star of the “Creeper” films of the 1940s. He was one of the rare non-giants to suffer from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, which caused his facial features to distort grotesquely, making him ideal to play thugs and misunderstood killers. Lothar, however, stands over seven feet tall in addition to suffering from acromegaly. He’s a fearsome menace whose characterization makes him an effective villain, although it eliminates the Hunchback of Notre Dame poignancy the “Creeper” films had.
The writers develop such a convoluted plot, they have to strain to keep numerous balls in the air. The FBI searches for the rocket pack on behalf of Hughes; Valentine and Lothar search for the rocket pack on behalf of Sinclair; Sinclair kidnaps Jenny in order to bring the Rocketeer out into the open; and Cliff tries to keep the rocket pack hidden, just until he can make enough money to build a new plane. All of these characters and subplots converge in unexpected ways designed to thrill. The film is incredibly effective, with a sense of whimsy and adventure that owes a great deal to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and the fast-paced adventure films of the period it encapsulates, without ever seeming derivative. The locales, production design, and casting are impeccable.
The Rocketeer could have turned into a phenomenal franchise had Disney marketed it to the correct demographic — middle-aged cranks and cinephiles who would drag their disinterested kids (and possibly grandkids) to a rollicking adventure evocative of their youths. Instead, it’s relegated to a Syfy Sunday afternoon. That’s a shame. Anyone who loves old movies and/or arcane ’30s trivia needs to see this film.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.