December’s here and with it the flurry of the holiday season. Naturally my thoughts turned to holiday movies, but over the years the vault has inducted quite a number of classic and not-so-classic films. I’m not saying that there will be no Christmas in the vault, it may take a bit to dig up the right films to celebrate the season. In the meantime, I turned to my never-ending list of films I should watch. Lo and behold what I found.
Los Angeles, 1938. Stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is in the middle of an excellent test flight for the Gee Bee racer built by his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin), when it’s filled full of lead by mobsters. The mobsters are being chased by the FBI after having stolen an experimental rocket pack from Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). In the crash and confusion, the rocket gets stashed at the hangar where Cliff and Peevy later discover it. Itching to try it out, Cliff convinces Peevy to prep the futuristic tech for a trial run. Unbeknownst to them, the FBI, mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) are all desperate to find it. When it becomes clear Cliff possesses the pack, Sinclair, who happens to be costarring with Cliff’s gal, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), aims to seduce or somehow use her to acquire the pack. Peevy just wants to give it to the Feds, but the recent influx of mobsters into their lives is making it difficult to do anything but run.
Released in the summer of 1991, The Rocketeer is the sophomore effort from director Joe Johnston which is adapted from the comic book character created by writer/artist Dave Stevens. The idea to bring the Rocketeer to the big screen had been kicking around since as early as 1983, but languished in development hell within Disney studios for the better part of a decade before getting the green light. The final product is sanitized to maximize its kid-friendliness, but does that mean it isn’t worth sitting through by adults?
Absolutely not. I’m no aficionado on the 30′s, but from what I’ve gleaned from television and film franchises like Indiana Jones, The Rocketeer does an excellent job of recreating the period. From the vehicles to the wardrobe to the Nazi threat even right down to the dialogue, it’s a fun flashback to a time its young target demographic probably knows little to nothing about. Luckily, being a comic book, there’s more than a bit of revisionism occurring with history so all that’s important is there’s a flying man out there to save the day.
As for the cast, Campbell has a classic hero look and though he’s a bit thick when it comes to the needs of his gal, he’s willing to risk it all to save her. As for his nemesis, Timothy Dalton is delightful. He’s handsome, debonair and cultured; a hard combination to resist, but if you take one look at the wide grin and gleam in his eye, you know you can’t trust Neville Sinclair. The Rocketeer also features more character actors than a fanboy can count. Ed Lauter as a Fed, Margo Martindale as diner owner Millie, Jon Polito as Cliff’s employer Bigelow, and Paul Sorvino as mob boss Valentine are just a few of the many recognizable, reliable faces. However, the standout in The Rocketeer is Jennifer Connelly and not just for the obvious reasons. She’s not only beautiful, but quite capable of handling herself amid all the mayhem unfolding around her. She’s one smart cookie who’s able to discover Sinclair’s sinister motivations for acquiring the rocket pack and keep his busy hands at bay in the process.
For all the exciting elements in The Rocketeer, I couldn’t help but be a bit underwhelmed by it all. Certainly ILM’s once top-notch effects now show their age. Also, in a time when comic book heroes rule the box office, the humble entertainment offerings in The Rocketeer are no match. Still, the work director Joe Johnston accomplishes in this makes it clear why he was tapped to direct the first installment of Captain America. While The Rocketeer my not knock you off your feet, it’s enough of a blast for lazy afternoon viewing.