The Rocketeer (1991)
"An Ordinary Man Forced to Become An Extraordinary Hero."
Cliff Secord is a young pilot whose dream of entering into a big air race with his new plane are ruined when a shoot-out involving cars on the ground below him forces him to crash-land. But whilst he is grounded, Secord stumbles across a top secret rocket pack that was hidden inside the cockpit of another plane in the hanger. Strapping on the invention, he finds that he can fly and with the assistance of his mechanic friend, Peevy, he becomes the Rocketeer. It isn’t long before he attracts the attentions of the Mafia, the FBI and Neville Sinclair, one of Hollywood’s top actors, who has a secret of his own.
Long before Iron Man hit the cinemas, another flying superhero who wore metal was one of the sole flag bearers of a niche genre which had yet to hit its stride, early Batman and Superman films aside. The Rocketeer was ahead of its time. Had it been made during the comic book boom of the late 00s, it would have a found a bigger, more appreciative audience. But it was a flop when it was released in 1991 and I’m not quite sure why. The Rocketeer blows the socks off a lot of today’s superhero efforts and is a lot of fun in its own quaint, charming way. Thankfully, over the years it has grown a decent cult following.
Think Iron Man meets Raiders of the Lost Ark and you won’t go too far wrong in preparing yourself for The Rocketeer. The film is set in the late 30s and a lot of effort goes into bringing to life that era with a wide variety of cars, clothes, music, hairstyles and dating etiquette on show. This wouldn’t have worked in a modern setting and the old fashioned, vintage feel helps bring the story to life in a lot more fantastical fashion – the notion of a rocket pack may not seem so far-fetched to someone in the present day as opposed to someone living in 30s America. The period setting also allows the inclusion of those favourite whipping boys, the Nazis, as the bad guys.
The retro feel of the film really allows the film to embrace its Saturday morning serial roots in much the same manner that Raiders of the Lost Ark managed to replicate so well. The film is very episodic, with the Rocketeer going from one scrape to the next and getting involved in all manner of gun battles, fist fights and battles atop blimps. The action sequences are dealt with perfectly well – this is a family-friendly Disney live-action film after all and so there’s nothing here that will offend or cause concern. The majority of action set pieces and special effects are done using old school techniques including using some well-trained stuntmen. Though some of the flying sequences with the Rocketeer look a bit dated now, they still serve their function. Everything is all very innocent and gentle, as you’d expect from the House of Mouse. It’s too bad we don’t really get enough of them. To say this superhero is meant to fly, he doesn’t do an awful lot of it.
Sadly, The Rocketeer lacks the spark that made Raiders tick – the self-referential humour. Yes there are a handful of in-jokes and sight gags but they’re sparsely scattered around the film. The throwaway material works well with gentle humour and whilst The Rocketeer never gets serious, it fails to find the funny bone as well. Coupled with the shortage of truly captivating and memorable action sequences, the film consistently threatens to come crashing back down to Earth with a bump. Thankfully the film is light enough to be able to take the rough and tumble of some poor pacing. Things never get overly boring but at the same time there seems to be a lack of energy underneath. You want it to get more exciting but it seems content with chugging along.
The Rocketeer’s main weakness comes from its leading man, Bill Campbell. Whilst he’s not terrible in the role, his performance is so average that it is hard to remember anything worthwhile he says or does in the film. The role really needed someone more charismatic and memorable to bring the character to life. Considering the supporting cast of Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton who all outshine him, Campbell is wooden and dull. Dalton, in particular, is having a blast (having hung up his 007 tux two years earlier) as a Nazi spy doubling up as a successful Hollywood actor. If anyone ever doubted whether Dalton had the charisma to pull off Bond (he was always one of, if not my favourite, actors to play Ian Fleming’s suave spy) then this role proves he did.
James Horner provides the soundtrack and seems content to rip off his previous scores once again. Aliens and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan were classic scores yet Horner continually recycles his old work to remind us of how good he once was.
A bit cheesy, full of clichés and as light and fluffy as cotton wool, The Rocketeer is nevertheless an entertaining, family-friendly superhero film which deserved far better success than it had. Not every superhero film has to be uber-serious like The Dark Knight or Man of Steel.
Director(s): Joe Johnston
Writer(s): Dave Stevens (graphic novel "The Rocketeer"), Danny Bilson (story & screenplay), Paul De Meo (story & screenplay
Actor(s): Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O'Quinn, Ed Lauter
Duration: 108 mins