A young scrappy pilot, conveniently, accomplishes what a non-freakazoid Howard Hughes (played by the Terry O’Quinn) and a few lackeys at the C.I.A. couldn’t do: create a flying man!
That pilot, Cliff, becomes that gold helmeted flying phenom. This comic book adaptation is full of Nazis, a vain and villainous actor, and an ugly as hell goon.
What more could you ask for?
Why We Love It
As a young and adorable child, I had one go-to VHS film. That beloved piece of spectacle was none other than Joe Johnston‘s The Rocketeer, a lesser Indiana Jones film. But even second-rate Indiana Jones is still awesomeness to behold, so I ate up every second of Johnston’s pulpy adventure.
To this day, I still eat it up… to a degree. Like most loved films from our youth, the film doesn’t hold up completely when you’re viewing it with a few more active brain cells. The Rocketeer is not the epic I recalled the superhero film as being. Despite the structure’s glaring problems, the tone’s pure sense of fun and earnestness makes this a blockbuster that’s easy to embrace. This ain’t a Willow or Neverending Story situation; films you can only really enjoy if you’re blinded by nostalgia when you’re older than ten.
And the film does have one sweet looking title character, and I’m referring to the suit, of course.
When star Bill Campbell is in the iconic suit, it’s gangbusters. When he’s not in his costume and is asked to rely on his “charisma,” it’s not gangbusters in the way intended. This is the anti-Iron Man. Favreau’s film is more fun with Stark outside of the suit. If Downey displays some level of restraint, something that seems difficult for him now, he oozes with charm. Campbell doesn’t contain half the larger-than-life quality that Downey or many other likable heroes portray. Cliff works great as a non-hero, not a naturally cool one. He’s not that daring, doesn’t treat his dashing gal Jenny (played by a gorgeous Jennifer Connelly) too well, and doesn’t throw too many punches either.
Timothy Dalton truly steps up to be that naturally cool character, and he’s so damn smarmy in the best way possible. Dalton has an uncanny talent for dickery, and Johnston lets him off the leash here. Dalton plays a prissy Nazi actor, and it’s a performance that is just cartoonish and chilling enough.
His vanity makes him menacing, not so much his plan or actions. The stakes are almost nonexistent. There is the evil Nazi plan to have all their soldiers becoming “rocket men,” but that’s a backseat scheme that is given little attention. The only legit-seeming threat is Cliff losing his Jenny, who pretty much loathes him for most of the film. She always looks as if she’s on the verge of dumping the hero or throwing him off a roof, and he gives her just reasons to do so. Their relationship is hilarious.
Alan Arkin‘s Peevy is the only who can stand Cliff for more than five-minutes. He’s the bumbling father figure with the witty quips, the sound advice, and is by far the most self-aware. He gets how ludicrous and dangerous certain situations are. Peevy points out what the audience is usually thinking. Arkin, being his usual Arkin self, gives the film grounding and a nice sense of humor.
The Rocketeer may be completely campy and unrealistic, but the movie works best when reveling in its own ridiculous nature. The Dick Tracy extra that stands in as the ugly and quiet henchman is pure cartoon magic. Ultimately, that’s the film: a great Saturday morning cartoon.
There’s a nostalgia and appreciation Johnston wears earnestly on his sleeve for those old serials that clearly have inspired so much of his work, and 20 years ago, he made a film that is just as fun as those influences. Johnston’s love for good old-fashioned and non-cynical adventure overshadows The Rocketeer‘s lesser qualities, and even those lesser qualities make for a lovable type of goofiness.
Moments We Fell In Love With
Every one of Timothy Dalton’s hilarious lines:
“It wasn’t lies, Jenny. It was acting!” [Cue maniacal laughter]
“A what? Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? All of the above!”
[While throwing down with The Rocketeer] “I do my own stunts!”
“If I go to the Feds, I’m taking you down with me! Who are they going to believe? A petty crook, or the No. 3 box-office star in America?”
“If she moves, kill her!” [A nice tip of the hat to The Wild Bunch]
Also when James Horner‘s excellent score is in full force.
It’s a bit of Indiana Jones, a bit of Bond, and a lot of fantastic camp. While I spent almost more time ragging on the film’s ironic issues than discussing what’s truly great about the film, The Rocketeer hits more home runs than it misses. Like the solid Hidalgo and the Boba Fett creator’s terrific October Sky, there’s an earnestness to this 1991 superhero film that easily wins me over and slaps a smile on my face.
With Johnston getting to play with a bigger scope along with having a genuinely charismatic leading man, Captain America: First Avenger should represent a new and improved version of The Rocketeer, a.k.a. a fantastic summer blockbuster.
P.S. God help you if you’re more than five years old and actually like The Neverending Story.