Movie Review: The Rocketeer

Posted: January 25, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Rocketeer (1991 Walt Disney Pictures Dir. Joe Johnston)

Kind of an odd little movie, based on a comic book which is itself based on a Republic serial. It’s also part of what I think of as an unofficial and barely connected trilogy. Follow me on this, you’ve got Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, then you’ve got Dick Tracy in 1990 and finally this in 1991. All are a sort of attempt to go back to a lionized and heavily nostalgized pre-50s past and sort of make the whole time when men wore hats cool again. I really like the semi-trilogy and I love all the movies in it despite the places where it doesn’t work. Disney kind of dumped the whole idea into the river after this didn’t blow the lid off like they were hoping. Both Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer underperformed, which means that while they didn’t exactly loose money, they didn’t make as much as was hoped. It’s sad really, because the recreation of that time period is one of my favorite things about 80s and 90s cinema. I love it when it’s done right, with proper attention to detail, and here I think it’s done properly.

You get to be the big star, I get to be the friend with the New York accent. This ain’t fair.

What we have is an origin story about a racing pilot named Cliff Secord (played by Bill Campbell) gets a jet pack invented by Howard Hughes and uses it to fight the Nazis. That might sound simple and it is, but simple isn’t bad. The movie is actually quite a bit of fun, and I can never understand why it didn’t do better. All I can think is that by 1991, we as a people were done with nostalgia. The whole idea of putting up posters with drawings of Elvis, and James Dean sitting at a malt shop with Marilyn Monroe was kind of passé. Had Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer come out today, they might have done better.

Bitch, next time you betta have my money!

Anyway, some crooks have stolen the rocket pack and they put it into Cliff’s plane where he and his buddy Peevy (played by Alan Arkin) discover it and start to play around with it. They actually do quite a bit of work testing the thing out and trying to make it at least somewhat safe for Cliff to use. While these guys are playing though, the mob and their boss (Paul Sorvino, playing his second mob boss in as many years) are looking for the jet pack at the behest of actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton doing his best Errol Flynn impersonation as that’s who the part was based on) who is really a Nazi spy trying to get the jet pack back to Germany so that they can use it. Because if you need a bad guy in the late 30s and early 40s, the Nazis are your Go-To guys. No one, anywhere, ever does anything naughty between 1935 and 1944 without having at least one Nazi in tow for union reasons.

I will not make jokes about Mexican food. I will not make jokes about Mexican food. I will not make jokes about Mexican food. I will not make jokes about Mexican food.

The plan to get the jet pack ends up involving Cliff’s girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) who is an actress but it mostly getting the sort of walking prop rolls that dooms someone with aspirations to being an extra forever. As soon as Sinclair discovers that Cliff has the rocket pack and that Jenny is his girlfriend through, he starts to woo her in an attempt to discover where the rocket pack is. This makes the roll of Jenny a bit more pivotal and more substantial than it might otherwise have been, which is a good thing because we get to see more of her and see her doing things besides screaming. Words cannot describe how much I hate seeing women in movies reduced to either a flower vase or a screaming machine. Fortunately, while Connelly looks quite ornamental, she gets to actually do things and not just screw things up.

“How do I look?”
“Like a hood ornament.”
That really is the line from the movie.

The feel of the film is very much like an old Republic serial, and this is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it keeps a fun feeling and keeps the movie moving from place to place in a neat and somewhat episodic manner. You can follow the movie step by step and keep fairly energized. It becomes a weakness when you realize that if the bad guys had any brains they’d be dangerous and that many of them are only 20 years late for the days when they could wear mustaches they could twirl. There are places where things are done for no reason, or dumb reasons, but on balance I forgive those bits. These moments aren’t all over the movie and there is enough sensible activity that you can forgive one or two idiot moves here and there.

Ha! When I take off the helmet and undo three buttons, no one suspects a thing!

The end of the movie becomes an extended head scratcher when the Mob turns on Neville, then the Nazis show up (in LA mind you) and are then surrounded by the FBI and the whole thing turns into a gun fight were the mob and FBI find themselves on the same side for once. It gets real fun when Neville takes Jenny up into a Zeppelin and caused Secord to follow. I love the idea of a jet pack (with the fire near the butt and everything) landing on a Zeppelin (with the hydrogen and all that) and then having to fight a giant on top of it. Then to have the Nazi spy take the jet pack away, only to have it explode and catch the Zeppelin on fire so that the hero and his best girl have to run across the bursting flaming wreck of death while being chased by a 7 foot tall henchmen. I mean the only thing that could make the end any better is if Howard Hughes chooses that moment to show up in an autogyro and save the two love birds. So lets do that! Yeah, Howard Hughes shows up at the last moment in an old fashioned autogyro which Holly called the “Hughes Ex Machina” and yes she did make me put that joke in here. I so wish that there was a sequel, just to see if Cliff and company had to face Nazis again and get a history professor with a Stetson to help fight them.

The Huges Ex Machina, always there when your story needs a hand!

One of the things I really do like here is how the set design is done. While giving off the impression that this is indeed 1938 LA, they don’t go over board and show a lot of old labels or brands that don’t exist anymore. Beemans Gum is the only brand label I can recall seeing at the moment, and then that’s because of the significance it plays in the movie. Of course this was also about the time that Beemans had hit shelves again (I know because I bought some at the time) so that might have had something to do with it.

Only she and Donna Reed can sleep with full make up and not smudge the pillow.

While it’s not perfect, I do think the movie deserves a bit better memory than what it seems to have gotten. It didn’t deserve to be lost to the mists of time like this. If for no other reason than because the dude wore a stylin’ jacket, one that I wouldn’t mind owning and you could buy for me here. I take a large thanks.

Back in the day… this was still a pretty tame scene.

The DVD has no love though. A 3:4 picture with big letter boxing bars, I would have liked a better image, but the sound is good. The only special feature is a trailer, so again with the no love. However I did get it for free, and I liked it enough to review it the same day, so who am I to complain? I would like a better edition of this movie to come out. You know, if you’re listening Disney. We don’t need a 378th edition of Snow White, we need this and Dick Tracy to get special editions. Quit screwing around and do it right!

Isn’t that a great shot? It was in all the previews. That image lasts just long enough for me to get a screen cap of it.

Special things to look out for the surprising amount of real stunt work done in this movie, a lot of falling off planes in mid air is done. Also, the Disney animators making a faux Nazi propaganda movie makes me giggle when you consider how very much like the animation resembles that in Victory Through Air Power and the rumors about Walt. You could also be on the look out for Jennifer Connelly in that white dress, but you don’t really have to search for her and aren’t we beyond ogling girls in movies? Frankly no, not when she looks that good.

Just one of many glorious shots of her in that dress.
Official Score:
45 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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  1. Terry says:

    just watched it again. Too bad The Rocketeer was compared so broadly to Indiana Jones; it was in the same genre but with a new and different hero. And movie “role” not roll.

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