"Thanks to the diligence of the FBI, this particular vacuum cleaner won't fall into the wrong hands."
There are a lot of things we have to thank Captain America for, helping to defeat the Nazis, giving the Red Skull a good kicking and perhaps most importantly, being directed by Joe Johnston. Given Johnston’s background in effects - he worked on the original Star Wars and countless other ILM efforts - he was clearly a good choice to direct a period set, comic book based, super hero movie. However there’s another reason that he was the perfect choice, because back in 1991 Johnstone also directed another period set, comic book based, super hero movie - The Rocketeer. William Goldman once famously said that “in Hollywood, no one knows anything” and this is never more true than when it comes to The Rocketeer. How did a film this great, end up bombing on its original release?
The Rocketeer is based on a series of comic books by writer/illustrator Dave Stevens, which in turn take their origin from the Saturday morning cliff-hanger movie serials of the 30s and 40s. The most obvious direct influence is the 1949 serial King of the Rocketmen, with which The Rocketeer shares some key plot points and, in a couple of scenes, the film’s protagonist even deliberately copies a few iconic poses from the earlier serial. Stevens used King of the Rocketmen as the springboard for his own original story, mixing in elements of the Commando Cody TV serial along with a nostalgic retro feel and a late 30s Hollywood setting. He also used real people as the basis for some characters, most notably the hero’s girlfriend Betty, who is modeled after the 1930s ‘Queen of the Pinups’ Bettie Page. Stevens also included numerous fictional characters from other pulp magazines such as the Doc Savage series and The Shadow, although he was careful not to mention any names to avoid copyright violations.
The film version of The Rocketeer remains reasonably faithful to the original comic book, thanks in part to the involvement of Stevens during the development process. However certain changes were made, in order to create a story that was less adult and more kiddie friendly. The most obvious difference is with the protagonist’s girlfriend Betty, who was renamed Jenny and changed from a nude model to an aspiring actress, which certainly makes sense and it fits in with the film’s Hollywood setting. The other obvious difference is that the inventor of the rocket pack is changed from Doc Savage to Howard Hughes. This was done primarily to avoid issues with the rights ownership of the character but in actual fact, the use of Hughes makes far more sense. Aside from the fact that Hughes is better known than Doc Savage, he was also an engineer and pilot and as such his character fits perfectly into the film's story. He also get’s a great scene involving his most famous plane, the ‘Spruce Goose’, which Disney was hoping to turn into a tourist attraction at the time and delivers the film’s funniest line - see the top of this review.
The plot of the film centres on a down at his luck stunt pilot called Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his friend and engineer, A. ‘Peevy’ Peabody (Alan Arkin). At the start of the film, the FBI are chasing some mobsters who have stolen a secret weapon and Cliff and Peevy’s racing plane is destroyed when it becomes caught in the crossfire. One of the mobsters hides this weapon in Cliff and Peevy’s hanger, which the pair soon discover and begin to experiment with. Unknown to Cliff and Peevy, what they have discovered is a rocket pack created by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) which is being hunted for by the FBI, the Mob and the Nazis. Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is an aspiring actress who becomes embroiled with Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who is revealed to be a Nazi spy. Unknown to the Mob, Sinclair has been using them to find the rocket pack and he kidnaps Jenny once he realises that Cliff is in possession of it. Cliff is thus forced to don his art deco helmet and become The Rocketeer, in the process saving Jenny from the clutches of Neville Sinclair and the free world from the iron jackboot of the Nazis.
The star of The Rocketeer is undoubtedly Timothy Dalton, who absolutely nails the role of Neville Sinclair. He delivers just the right amount of charm and danger to make the character a memorable villain. He is also clearly having a ball playing the part and delivers some of the best lines and funniest jokes. The character of Neville Sinclair is obviously based on Errol Flynn, the infamous swashbuckling Hollywood hell raiser who actually was accused of being a Nazi spy in an unauthorized biography that has since been completely refuted.
Bill Campbell is also great as The Rocketeer himself, bringing plenty of charisma and good looks to the square jawed hero role. Although after this incredible start he must be wondering what the hell happened to his career! As for Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny, well it’s possible no one has ever looked more gorgeous than Jennifer Connelly does in this film and she brings a wonderful mixture of innocence and sexiness to the role of the film’s ingenue. Thanks to an off-screen romance between Connelly and Campbell, the two characters also have a considerable amount of on-screen chemistry. The rest of cast provide excellent support, with the always reliable Alan Alda playing Peevy, Paul Sorvino doing his usual turn as a mafia heavy and Terry O’Quinn from Lost putting in a great performance as Howard Hughes.
The behind the camera talent delivers the goods just as much those in front of it and much of the credit must go to Joe Johnston. Thanks to his background in effects he marshals all the technical aspects perfectly, delivering some impressive effects for the time. In fact, one of the reasons the effects hold up so well is because Johnstone uses a surprisingly large amount of practical effects which have aged much better than some of the blue screen work. The art deco influenced production design is also excellent, with a fine eye for period detail that really captures 1930s Hollywood. The same goes for the costume design, with The Rocketeer himself looking especially cool in his double buttoned leather jacket, art deco helmet, jodhpurs and knee high boots. The score from James Horner is also one of his best, with a stirring main theme and incidental music that doesn't rip off his earlier works too much, which Horner has a bad habit of doing.
The film is exciting and entertaining and filled with sly jokes and some knowing touches including a particularly enjoyable gag involving the Hollywoodland sign, as it was then. There is also a fantastic scene where the heroes watch a Nazi propaganda film showing animated rocket pack wearing soldiers invading the US. Towards the end a Zeppelin turns up over Griffith Observatory in LA and provides the film with a suitably cliffhanging climax. Some reviewers have criticised the character of Lothar, who is Sinclair’s monstrous henchman. However, these reviewers are missing one of the film’s best movie references (which was actually carried over from the comic) because Lothar is based on real life B-movie heavy Rondo Hatton. Unfortunately for Hatton, he suffered from a rare genetic condition called acromegaly which distorted the shape of his head and the filmmakers perfectly recreate Hatton’s appearance, thanks to make-up effects by Rick Baker.
So how come when a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark (which Johnston also worked on) pays homage to the cliffhanging serials of the 30s and 40s it breaks box office records whilst The Rocketeer crashes and burns? Well it’s possible that audiences in 1991 just didn’t appreciate the film’s lovingly created 1930s setting but then the Indiana Jones movies are also set in the 30s and they involve Nazis. It’s more likely that the lack of star names and the absence of the likes of Spielberg and Lucas behind the camera was a major factor. Whatever the reason it is a crying shame because the failure of the original film meant there would be no more adventures for Cliff Secord and his rocket pack.
At least we still have the original and twenty years later the film retains all of its charms and is just as enjoyable as it was when it opened. When people talk about Hollywood not making movies like they used to, this is the sort of film they’re referring to. The Rocketeer deftly combines 30s heroism with 90s filmmaking and creates a perfect blend of action, comedy and romance. It certainly works better than the recent Captain America which, whilst capturing a lot of the same feel as The Rocketeer, was hampered by being stuck between two modern day bookends that turned the film into a protracted trailer for the new Avengers movie. The Rocketeer however is the real deal, if you’re a fan then you probably already knew that but if you haven’t seen it, you really owe it to yourself to discover this forgotten gem.
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