Based on the 1940’s and 50’s cinema serials: King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon and Zombies of the Stratosphere, the comic adventures of The Rocketeer debuted in 1981, courtesy of artist, Dave Stevens. The comic serial ran until 1995 and told the story of Cliff Secord as he saved 1930‘s America from terrorism.
Touchstone Pictures acquired the film rights and released Rocketeer across cinemas in the summer of 1991 - a year that saw huge blockbusters such as Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. Rocketeer would quickly fall into obscurity and the hopes of turning the movie franchise into an ongoing series were soon dashed.
It’s Hollywood in the late 1930’s. Ace pilot, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his best friend and mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin) are testing a new mini plane with the hopes of it getting them into the national finals. Soon after Cliff sets out on his test flight, he is caught up in a gun-fight between the FBI and gangsters and is forced to make a crash landing after his plane gets hit.
Cliff and Peevy are left disappointed and have no choice but to use an old bi-plane to entertain air show crowds as a means of bringing in the money. When Cliff sits in the plane he discovers a heavy item, stashed underneath the seat. Upon opening the bag, the friends discover a mysterious metallic object which they soon find out has an amazing ability - to allow man to fly. Cliff decides that this would be a good opportunity to earn some money for a new plane but before he even gets to test the jet-pack he is forced to don it and rescue a pilot who is suddenly in danger. Caught on camera by the press, he is dubbed “The Rocketeer”.
Now in the public limelight, Cliff finds himself in danger as he is pursued by Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his mob, the FBI, Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) and the No.3 box-office sensation, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who also has his eye on Cliff’s girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly).
Rocketeer remains a largely overlooked film to this day. It follows in the tradition of many western adventure movies that offer a slice of pure, wholesome Americana and delivers what it sets out to do. Yes it gets cheesy, yes the bad guys are terribly clichéd and yes, it has a patriotic flavour that’s ripe with pre WW2 sentiments but it is still fun and incredibly old fashioned, heralding back to the days when the 1930’s - 50’s was producing movies like this. In that respect it is a little fresher after all these years, with only the Indiana Jones Trilogy, The Phantom and The Shadow (that was a bit rubbish though) capturing that traditional Hollywood adventure feel.
It’s impossible to take this film seriously and it isn’t designed to give a meaningful message to those watching it; it is a fun ride that concerns the adventures of an unlikely hero caught up in espionage. Set before World War II it still paints a predictable picture of the Germans, led by Hitler who is trying to build up an army of super soldiers, capable of flying with this new technology. The atmosphere stays at a fun level though and never does the film drown itself out with over sentimentality. Sure we see the American flag toward the end, just before our hero boards a Nazi blimp - a piece that urges the viewer to cheer on Cliff as he dons his jet-pack for the final time.
Pictures like Independence Day take this kind of patriotism to the next, sickly level and I don’t doubt that Rocketeer was made primarily for a U.S. audience. It still has a mass appeal though because at its core is a simple tale of good vs. evil, with all the familiar elements.
Being based on a comic book, Rocketeer is faithful to its roots. Costume designs and settings are spot on. The Rocketeer’s apparel is exact to how it was seen in the comic series and graphic novels. Director, Joe Johnston shows a fine eye for detail and faithfulness and gives the film a level of respect that any director adapting a comic book should.
Rocketeer features some fine aerial action that is quite ambitious, given the limitations of special effects. Industrial Light & Magic were called upon to provide the key set pieces that feature our hero soaring through the skies. It's just too bad that we don't get enough of them. These effects can be easily overlooked today for all they've dated. The ongoing change of technology throughout the years means that eventually everything is going to look as dated as the next film, which some people want to forget or use as an excuse for why a film of this calibre would appear poor. Rocketeer uses matting effects to an acceptable degree but making them work even better is when James Horner’s score kicks in.
The score provides the perfect emotional level that elevates the action set pieces, in turn making them more exciting. From the opening titles we are introduced to a gentle rendition of the rocketeer’s theme. It sets the mood for what is going to be a happy, family movie and captures the feel of the glamorous and romantic Hollywood setting that is filmed with a dream like quality.
Featuring a largely impressive cast, Rocketeer is well rounded with fine performances, suitable for its theme.
Bill Campbell might not look like the hero figure you’d expect but that is the whole point. The idea behind his character is that he is an average Joe who loves adventure but would never expect such a life changing situation to occur. Campbell provides an innocent and likeable quality that will have you cheering him on. He’s physically well suited to the role and balances out his character’s emotions well.
Timothy Dalton provides a fine, sneering bad guy who is a good pastiche of so many typical villains from comic serials, past. He’s deliberately over the top and seems to revel in his scenes. Alan Arkin is wonderful as usual, playing Peevy, with plenty of great lines. Jennifer Connelly looks the part and performs it well enough. The rest of the supporting cast deliver good, suitable performances for this comic fantasy.
Touchstone Pictures shamelessly present Rocketeer on a DVD that deserved much more but ended up with static menus and zero features.
The film is presented in an Anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio. The transfer is slightly soft in places and could have been better but it is acceptable. Colours are warm and overall it makes for pleasant viewing.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds very good, particularly during the rocketeer's action scenes, which make more use of the surrounds. Dialogue is crisp - no complaints.
None. Shame on you Touchstone for this lazy release.
Rocketeer deserved to do better than it actually did, it certainly warrants a sequel. The film is pure escapism, fuelled with exciting aerial photography, healthy amounts of humour and fun performances. An underrated gem.