Superheroes have been popular at the cinema since the serials of the 30’s and 40’s, and they’ve been a big budget summertime fixture since Richard Donner’s Superman. However, for every high flying box office success, several superhero movies have flopped. Including, rather unjustly, this one.
Director: Joe Johnston
What’s It All About?
Based on Dave Stevens’ graphic novel, Rocketeer is set in Hollywood in 1938. The hero is a pilot named Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) who, for reasons a bit convoluted to go into right now, comes into possession of a prototype invention; a rocket pack designed to make a man fly. When one of Cliff’s fellow pilots gets in trouble in the air, Cliff dons the rocket to save him and becomes the Rocketeer. Unfortunately other people want the rocket, and Cliff finds himself pursued by the FBI, gangsters, and a Hollywood movie star (Timothy Dalton) and finds that he has put himself, his best friend (Alan Arkin) and his sometime actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) in terrible danger.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Rocketeer was a commercial disaster on its 1991 release, and though it’s not been hidden since the subsequent VHS and DVD releases have hardly had much effort put into them. It’s also likely because the original graphic novel is not a well known property, and aside from Jennifer Connelly the cast is lacking in real star power. All in all, it flopped, and then just got lost in the shuffle.
Why Should You See It?
While it’s not exactly Raiders of the Lost Ark (what is?), Rocketeer is an enormously good time. Like Raiders it has the feel of a classic adventure serial and moves at a fast pace between entertaining action sequences, while also boasting a selection of memorable characters and performances. It has to be said that in this case those memorable performances come from the supporting cast rather than the star. Around the central characters, who we’ll come to in a bit, there is a selection of fine character actors from Paul Sorvino (riffing on his Goodfellas role as a mobster with principles) to William Sanderson (as one of Cliff’s pilot buddies) to Terry O’Quinn (perfectly cast as Howard Hughes) and all of them seem to be having fun, hitting the right tone with their broad, but not over the top, performances. Also worth mentioning is Tiny Ron, appearing heavily made up as one of Timothy Dalton’s heavies. His make up is based on Rondo Hatton, an acromegaly sufferer (the same condition that John Merrick; the elephant man, had) who, in the 30’s and 40’s, appeared in many films as a villain called The Creeper, it’s one of several nice nods to the movies, some subtle, some less so.
At the centre of the film are three strong performances, and Bill Campbell. Campbell is simply miscast as Cliff, he’s got the requisite square jaw, but he’s blank faced and has all the charisma of a fence post. If there is one thing I’d change about Rocketeer it would be to cast Cary Elwes in Campbell’s part, okay he’s hardly the greatest actor, but imagine him bringing the same sort of verve as he did to The Princess Bride to this movie. Happily Campbell’s limp hero doesn’t hobble the film, thanks largely to the contribution of Timothy Dalton, who is in hamtastic form as the Errol Flynn like Neville Sinclair. Dalton is wonderfully stuck up and slimy as he tries to seduce Jennifer Connelly, and generally has an enormously good time playing every scene as if he were in a genuine 30’s serial. Connelly is 20 or 21 here, and at her most unreasonably beautiful. She’s not called on to do much beyond fill a dress well and get kidnapped, but she does both of those things capably while giving a solid performance. She’s also well cast, her look very much that of an actress you might see in studio era films. Alan Arkin is a little sidelined as Cliff’s mechanic friend Peevy, and it would be nice if he were a little more developed, but he fills the old sage role well enough, and perhaps they were saving him for the sequel.
The flying sequences when Cliff dons the rocket pack may look a little rusty now, but they’re still pretty exciting and Joe Johnston manages to give each sequence its own feel, and develop Cliff’s flying abilities with each one. Where this film really excels itself, on the technical side, is with the production design. There is a beautiful deco styling to the film, which extends to a fantastic animated sequence and even to the astonishing teaser poster. Joe Johnston may be a journeyman, but he’s a skilled one, and he creates a very consistent and believably heightened world for this film, as well as crafting a compelling visual identity for both the world and the characters. Also on the visual side there are some fun sight gags, from the Rondo Hatton reference to an inspired joke about the Hollywood sign.
It’s a real shame that Rocketeer didn’t – ahem – take off. The closing scene hints at a sequel, one that I’d love to have seen made because with the origin story out of the way and a first chapter that is such enormous fun to play off, it really could have been a great movie.
How Can You See It?
There are Region 1 and 2 DVDs, but both apparently suffer from an only slightly better than VHS quality picture, however, they are at least in the correct aspect ratio, and can likely be had for very little money.
If you’ve seen, or subsequently see, any of the films I mention, or if you’ve got a suggestion for a film that I should feature on WHYS…? in the future then we’d love to hear from you in the comments, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org