The Rocketeer (1991) – Directed by Joe Johnston – Starring Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, Joe Polito, Tiny Ron Taylor, Ed Lauter, Clint Howard, Margo Martindale, Eddie Jones, and William Sanderson.
Oh, the tricks time can play on one’s mind, at times.
When I pulled the DVD sleeve out of the Netflix envelope, I thought they had made a mistake by listing THE ROCKETEER’s year of release as 1991. 1991? 1991 was the year of Ten, Nevermind, and The Enemy Strikes Black. THE ROCKETEER was before that. Way before that. I would have sworn it was released pre-1990 rather than post-1990 because I remember ROCKETEER with the hazy edges of distant recollection that typically comes from watching a movie when you’re young. The idea that it was released two months before Ten just does not seem right.
And yet, Netflix was right and my head was wrong, so score one for the Red Envelope.
THE ROCKETEER is a wonderful film. It’s safe, soft, simple, relatively all-ages friendly, and just plain fun. Joe Johnston creates a 1930s America that’s pure Americana mythology: hard-working, low-earning Californians struggling to get their dreams off the ground not because of lack of talent, ambition, or effort, but because of a lack of cash and some very bad luck. They get embroiled in a plot involving Howard Hughes, the FBI, the mob, and, because it’s 1938, Nazis. What’s great about ROCKETEER is that it manages to feel both time-worn and fresh all at once, and the overall effect is that it feels like an old, unread comic book from an era you love.
Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) has developed a single-use rocket pack that gets stolen by some mobsters. During a chase with the FBI, the last-surviving thief stashes the pack in an airfield hangar, where it’s eventually found by pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and mechanical engineer Peevy (Alan Arkin). The FBI mistakenly takes the wrong piece of equipment back to Hughes, and head mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) tells Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) that while they weren’t able to acquire the rocket pack, it’s not lost, as the FBI thinks.
Billy’s having his own problems with sweetheart Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). We know that Cliff loves her because he keeps a picture of her in his airplanes when he flies, and even risks his life to save Jenny’s picture from a crash, but his relationship with the real Jenny (as opposed to photographic Jenny) is more problematic. She has her dreams, too. Jenny wants to be an actress, but Cliff, instead of being supportive, keeps making comments about how she’s just a background player in these films. Cliff never comes across as a huge jerk (just a small one), because his comments come across as Cliff being frustrated with his own financial situation, and the general financial unease of everyone’s situation around them. Cliff is also a homebody and Jenny isn’t; when they eat dinner at the small diner by the airfield, Jenny talks about her desire to go someplace else, someplace new and expensive, and Cliff
Peevy does some tinkering with the rocket pack and builds a helmet to go with it to control steering, but the device doesn’t get a proper test until Cliff’s late arrival at an airshow causes an older pilot to take his place. Something goes wrong and Cliff decides using the rocket pack is the only way to help. So he does, and we get a decent action sequence that sees the public enthralled with this new addition to the airshow.
All of the action sequences in ROCKETEER are executed well without ever becoming spectacular. Johnston does well to create the action in memorable locales (during an airshow, at a swanky club, on a Nazi zeppelin), which helps to elevate the effectiveness of the scenes. Take the airshow where the Rocketeer (not named so until afterwards by someone else) makes his debut. He goes zipping around the skies and hanging off the bi-plane that Malcolm is flying (while dressed as a clown), but nothing here is overly complicated (by action movie standards; I’m sure it took plenty of skill to actually do). Some of the best parts of the scene are when the Rocketeer falls off the plane and then re-ignites his rocket during the fall. Or on the zeppelin, when Johnston wisely uses the coolness (and close quarters) of the ship to make the scene work. We get establishing shots of the zeppelin in flight, but most of the action takes place either inside the small cabin area where broken windows and ricocheting bullets take on a greater importance.
And that swanky night club – I never get tired of seeing scenes take place in 1930s nightclubs. I love the costumes, the sets, the big bands … when the band lays into the Cole Porter-penned classic, “Begin the Beguine,” I feel transported to this era.
ROCKETEER sets up a “three army” conflict between Cliff and Peevy, Hughes and the FBI, and Sinclair and the mob. That’s a lot of moving parts but they have very simple actions, so the plot never gets complicated. The big “twist” ends up being the reveal that Sinclair is a Nazy spy.
Dalton is really the best part of the film. He’s the perfect actor to play a villain in a film like this because he’s charismatic and willing to poke some fun at himself. Sinclair is a thinly-veiled parody of Errol Flynn (who was accused of being a Nazi spy), and Dalton easily handles all that the film requires him to do – which is a lot. He’s the only character in the film that has any kind of real complexity, and whether he’s being charming with Jenny, demanding with Valentine, or ruthless with Cliff, Dalton makes it all work.
Everything comes to a head on that zeppelin. We get a big action shoot ‘em up between the FBI, Nazis, and the mob (with the mob siding with the FBI because, as Valentine says, he might be a crook, but he’s 100% American), but then it’s the Rocketeer on the zeppelin. He takes care of Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) on top of the zeppelin, then he and Jenny team up inside the zeppelin against Sinclair. Cliff tricks Sinclair into taking a damaged rocket pack and he tries to get Jenny to come with him one last time, but she’s not having it, calling him a liar. “It wasn’t lying, Jenny,” he tells her smarmily. “It was acting.” Then he flies off and blows himself up, crashing into the “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign and destroying those last four letters.
And now you know how that happened.
Even beyond Dalton, ROCKETEER is impeccably cast. Campbell, Connelly, Arkin, Sorvino, and O’Quinn all effortlessly fill their roles. As I said, the film doesn’t ask them to do a whole lot, but what it asks them to do is right in everyone’s wheelhouse.
With the Nazis defeated and the rocket pack destroyed, life goes back to normal, except Johnston allows them to have the Americana happy ending: Cliff realizes Jenny is more important than flying, and Hughes shows up to give Cliff and Peevy a Gee Bee plane for the national airshow. “What was it like,” Hughes asks Cliff of his time as the Rocketeer, “strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of hell?” Cliff says it’s as close to Heaven as he’s ever going to get, but then sees Jenny in the background and says, “Or maybe not.” Good call, Cliff. Jenny has even managed to find the plans for the rocket pack and Peevy starts getting all technical, but as he’s talking to Cliff, Cliff is making out with Jenny.
The story in THE ROCKETEER is serviceable, but it’s the overall look and feel of the film that makes this film work. I love the Art Deco style of the Rocketeer’s costume, and the overall Americana adventure tone of the film makes this a fun film to watch and re-watch. THE ROCKETEER is quietly great, and even now, makes me feel like I did when I was a kid and read my Spider-Man, Captain America, and Green Lantern comics – I look at the Rocketeer and think, yeah, I want to be that guy.