The Rocketeer (1991)
Dir. by Joe Johnston
Starring Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton
Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot in 1930s Los Angeles, discovers an experimental jet pack hidden in his hangar by a mobster running from the FBI. After he uses it to save a fellow pilot during an air show, he becomes hailed in the newspapers as “the Rocketeer”, attracting the attention of both the FBI and a Nazi spy ring, who had stolen the device from Howard Hughes in the first place.
I don’t actively remember seeing the movie in theaters, but I know that I did and that we had it on VHS at home for a while. Actually, the strongest connection I have with the movie is from a Pizza Hut tie-in promotion. They had plastic cups with elaborate Rocketeer helmet-shaped lids, and we had one in the cabinet above our washing machine for almost the entirety of the 1990s. But the week that I’m writing this is the movie’s 30th anniversary, so I decided that a review was appropriate.
In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had a massive, genre-shaping hit with Raiders of the Lost Ark, an intentional throwback to the adventure serials of the 1940s and 50s that both Spielberg and Lucas had grown up on. Ten years later, one of the special effects artists who’d won an Oscar for Raiders, Joe Johnston, would make his own serials-inspired movie. The Rocketeer is based on a comic book from the 1980s, which was in turn inspired by 50s scifi serials such as Commander Cody.
At first blush, it does appear to be quite the Indiana Jones ripoff. You have the hero who wears a leather jacket for most of the movie, the 1930s setting (complete with Nazis as the bad guy), the MacGuffin that everyone’s chasing after – even the zeppelin from Last Crusade. But I think that this movie succeeds where a lot of other wannabe Raiders pastiches fail because it doesn’t just stop at the superficial details. It manages to capture some of that same gee whiz spirit that infused the first Indiana Jones film in particular.
I think that setting of the film really helps with this. A large portion of the action takes place in Hollywood, and the villain Neville Sinclair is a major Hollywood actor (he’s clearly based on Errol Flynn, who had a gossipy, unsubstantiated biography written about him claiming that he was a Nazi spy). Bringing in the glitz and glamour of the period to this fairly silly story of a rocket man was a good choice, as the artificiality of the sets and costumes plays well with the rest of the movie’s tone.
For the most part, I think the movie was well-cast as well. Timothy Dalton, as Sinclair, is clearly having the time of his life. He brings a lot of the same energy here as he would in Hot Fuzz 15 years later, playing an over-the-top personality who knows he’s bad, and is so self-assured in his own charm that he thinks he can get away with it just by smiling. I also really liked Alan Arkin as the cranky but good-hearted mechanic Peevy (though I barely recognized him with hair – something that was actually a bit of a theme for this movie).
As for the titular hero himself, I both appreciated and was annoyed by his characterization. While Indiana Jones was often making things up as he went along, he was actually a qualified professor of archaeology who knew what he was doing most of the time. Cliff Secord, on the other hand, is a fuckup, especially when it comes to romance and dating. He insults his girlfriend’s job, then blunders right into a closed set when trying to apologize and gets her fired, in the process tipping off Sinclair and the spy ring. It’s a wonder she hadn’t dumped his ass well before the movie started if that’s how he usually behaves. But I do like that they were willing to give us a hero who wasn’t all that heroic, who didn’t really know what he was doing. I also like that Jenny wasn’t just a damsel in distress. Sure, she got kidnapped by Sinclair, but she also managed to knock him out and discover the spy ring on her own.
Between 1989 and 1996, there was a whole wave of adaptations of old comic books from the 1930s and 40s. Batman kicked things off, but oddly most of these movies took their cue from Warren Beatty’s passion project of Dick Tracy, rather than any more modern comic book characters. Though based on a comic from the 1980s, The Rocketeer’s 30s setting and inspiration from the serials allows it to fit right in with the rest of the pulp movie trend. In fact, I think it’s the best of the bunch. It’s pretty clear to me how this movie got Joe Johnston the job directing the first Captain America movie for the MCU. Despite some rough edges, there’s certainly enough B-movie charm here to make for an entertaining viewing, even in our modern superhero movie era.
-Another actor I barely recognized due to a full head of hair: Terry O’Quinn, better known as Locke from Lost, as Howard Hughes.
-One actor I’m surprised I DID recognize, almost immediately: the getaway driver who stashes the rocket pack in the hangar is played by Max Grodenchik, who played the Ferengi Rom on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (my favorite TV show of all time). He was under heavy latex for all seven seasons of that show, yet I was still asking “Is that Rom?” out loud within seconds of first seeing him.