Ah, nostalgia! Be it that old cartoon, a favorite toy or a comic book from days gone by, isn’t it great, when out of the blue, the memories come flooding back, and you’ve no choice but to exclaim “Holy Crap! Remember?”
Twenty years before he directed Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe Johnston helmed another Disney feature about a heroic young man battling the Nazis. I’m talking, of course, about The Rocketeer. While it’s interesting to compare the two film and their similarities and differences, it should be noted that The Rocketeer holds up quite fine on its own. With a talented cast, plucky script, excellent attention to detail concerning its time period, decent effects, and a phenomenal score, it’s no wonder the movie, which underperformed at the box office upon its release, has since become a minor cult classic. Premiering in 1991, The Rocketeer is based on the comic character created by Dave Stevens as an homage to the Saturday morning matinée serials of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, a trait he shares with the more prominent Indiana Jones. Unlike Professor Jones, stunt pilot Cliff Secord is a much more blue-collar hero who possess a gimmick quite different from a whip: his rocket pack allows him to soar through the sky.
In 1938 Los Angeles, when Secord (Billy Campbell) and his friend Peevy (Alan Arkin) stumble upon the rocket, Cliff sees it as a way to make a quick buck, despite Peevy’s warning of caution. The older man is right though, as two different factions are both racing to find the stolen rocket. On one side is the FBI, working in conjunction with the rocket’s inventor, Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). On the other is movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who wants the rocket for his own mysterious reasons and has hired gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his gang to retrieve it. When they prove not up to the task, Sinclair calls in the giant Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) to assist. When Cliff dons the rocket pack and helmet (made by Peevy to provide protection) to save a fellow pilot, he quickly becomes a media sensation as the heroic Rocketeer. When Sinclair overhears Cliff telling his aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) about the rocket, he makes moves to woo her away in order to get closer to his goal.
While Cliff meets Hughes and learns that the rocket was invented in order to beat Germany to the technology, Jenny is kidnapped by Sinclair and discovers the actor is secretly a Nazi spy. He offers Cliff a trade, the girl for the rocket. This leads to a standoff between Cliff and Sinclair, Lothar, and the Valentine gang, though the gangsters switch spies when Valentine learns Sinclair’s true allegiance. The tables are turned upon the arrival of a cadre of Nazi soldiers and their immense zeppelin, only to be turned once again when the FBI shows up as well. This leads to the gangsters and the Feds fighting side-by-side against the Nazis while Cliff follows Sinclair and Jenny onto the zeppelin for an extremely explosive finale. I won’t go into detail here, you’ll have to watch it yourself to see that, but I don’t think I’m spoiling too much when I say that good triumphs over evil and sequels are set up, though they sadly never materialized.
There’s a lot to like in The Rocketeer. The story is pretty basic, but the script is balanced out by a nice dose of humor that never takes itself too seriously. (“Brace yourself. I’m the Rocketeer.” “The Rockawho?”) The cast does their best with characters who are mostly one-note. Campbell seems to be transferred over directly from the serials at times, but you eventually see a vulnerability when Jenny is in danger that not a lot of “heroic” actors are willing to how. Speaking of Connelly, in my opinion she’s at her peak hotness here, and I enjoy that Jenny is a little more than just another damsel-in-distress. (Girl busts two different statues/lamps over villain’s heads at different times. Not bad.) Arkin doesn’t quite reach the levels of snark he does in later films like Little Miss Sunshine and Argo, but it’s still there (“How do I look?” “Like a hood ornament.”) and the actor makes it clear how much Peevy cares for his surrogate son and daughter. Dalton is remarkably restrained in what could have been a scenery-chewing role, especially in his first big post-Bond role, though he does have his moments. Surprisingly, the biggest character arc belongs to Sorvino’s Eddie Valentine, who is a crook but remains patriotic throughout. (“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”) Perhaps my favorite scene in the whole film is when the gangster and a FBI agent are side-by-side, firing away at the Nazis. They pause, look at each other for a second, then resume shooting. Hilarious stuff. The effects hold up okay. Some seem a little dated, but most importantly the flying scenes still look pretty great. Special mention has to go to James Horner’s rousing musical score. It elevates the film whenever it’s on and has gone on to be reused in multiple movie trailers since. There have been rumbling recently of a remake and I’d be okay with that, though it’ll have to do a lot to top the original. It’s definitely worth a rewatch, and if you haven’t seen it at all you should check it out.