In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
The Rocketeer occasionally vrooms as if powered by voluminous vials of jet fuel, regularly sparks to life through respective heel or helper turns from Timothy Dalton and Alan Arkin, and will send art-deco aficionados’ eyes a-poppin’ like Tex Avery’s Wolf. But its sum total is a mostly phantom memory of aesthetic, mood and momentum. Its ending’s excellent crest of thrills eclipses so many poky preceding moments; if it’s been a while since you’ve seen The Rocketeer, that thrilling climax atop a burning zeppelin certainly informs your recollection. It otherwise looks like what you expect a mid-budget 1991 Disney film set in 1938 to look like. Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly are unbelievable drips in the lead roles. It’s a ne plus ultra of emotionally nondescript period-adventure filmmaking. The Rocketeer is fine, and that’s fine.
This may read like heretical blasphemy so far. That’s fine, too. Nostalgic windows drift shut on folks at different times. Any movie, at any time, can open someone’s eyes to the wonders of the medium. The cheery can-do adventure of The Rocketeer certainly means the world to many people. Perhaps some of them were those whose guardians kept tighter gates on Indiana Jones’s comparatively gruesome adventures. To those weaned on lost arks, temples of doom and last crusades, however, The Rocketeer feels like appreciable entertainment perhaps subjected to a bit too much tampering on its way from comic book to screen.
For contemporary comparison, the Rocketeer flies like Iron Man while wearing a helmet more akin to Ant-Man. The Rocketeer becomes the alter ego of Cliff Secord (Campbell), a hotshot pilot whose dreams of national competition are grounded after a chance run-in with gangsters and G-men destroys his plane. Before he’s hauled to the hoosegow, one gangster stashes a rocket-pack prototype in Secord’s hangar— one that lets Cliff fly like hell when strapped to his back and which he must use to save a friend from an aerial show stunt gone wrong.
Cliff’s well-publicized heroics attract the attention of the gangsters, the feds, a 7-foot-tall brute named Lothar who folds people in half, a boorish movie star named Neville Sinclair (Dalton) who seeks the prototype for his own purposes, and the gizmo’s inventor, a fictionalized version of real-life iconic inventor Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Alongside his trusted mechanic “Peevy” Peabody (Arkin), Cliff scrambles to navigate all of these competing, and often lethal, interests while saving his actress girlfriend, Jenny (Connelly) … and perhaps the very world.
Influenced by Commander Cody and King of the Rocket Men movie serials that Republic Pictures pumped out a half-century earlier, Dave Stevens created the Rocketeer for Pacific Comics in 1982. Stevens was a comic-strip and -book artist who also worked in animation for Hanna-Barbera and storyboarding for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite an erratic publication schedule, the Rocketeer became one of the more successful superheroes to emerge from that era’s independent-comic imprint challenge to Marvel and DC. (Stevens died of leukemia in 2008, but the character’s print presence has persisted through individual adventures, team-ups with the Spirit, and short stories written by a passel of authors.)
Although a few directors flirted with a film version earlier, true development began in the mid-1980s. Stevens teamed with screenwriting duo Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who had primarily penned pictures for cheapie B-movie distribution house Empire International. The trio considered an independent black-and-white production cast with character actors. But a meeting with director William Dear (whose biggest credit was the 1982 sci-fi film Timerider) persuaded them to pitch a full-budget, big-ticket throwback adventure to major studios in 1986.
That’s three years before Tim Burton’s Batman changed the game for the superhero-film landscape. But Disney, which would see its own indelible comic-adaptation juggernaut in 1990’s Dick Tracy, decided to bite. Thus, a trilogy deal through Touchstone Pictures, Disney’s teen- and adult-oriented entertainment arm. Dear would direct. Bilson and De Meo would write. Stevens would co-produce. But then execs switched the property to straight-up Walt Disney Pictures, where, as Stevens said, “anything adult went right out with the bathwater” for “a kiddie property so they could sell toys.”
Disney demanded a present-day version, against which the creative team successfully argued the success of the Indiana Jones films. Disney wanted more of a NASA-type helmet rather than a heavy metal head that would obscure a matinee-idol face. The team got them to relent on that, too. But the studio proceeded to fire and rehire Bilson & De Meo several times over the next few years — a slingshot of summoning and sacking during which the duo rewrote others’ work, shoehorned dialogue that executives wanted excised months earlier, or even reinserted scenes they threw out years before on request. All these delays forced Dear out of the director’s chair. Enter Joe Johnston, a fan of the comic book who had directed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for Disney in 1989 and been integral to Oscar-winning visual-effects crews on Star Wars: A New Hope and Raiders. He was quickly hired, and pre-production began in early 1990.
Pro forma for such a production, nearly everyone of reasonable (or saleable) age was considered for the lead role — Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Emilio Estevez, Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio. Disney apparently wanted Johnny Depp, and Bill Paxton told Entertainment Weekly years later he was close to getting the lead — the latter indeed an eminently more agreeable alternate-dimension preference to Campbell’s flattened pretty-boy performance here. But Johnston and Stevens fought to cast Campbell against the studio’s wishes. Rarely does the studio seem right in such instances, but they were beyond right here.
The final cut of The Rocketeer crams in a lot during 100 minutes or so sans credits, so it’s not as if Cliff Secord has to hit the heights of a Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne or even do all that much to carry some charm. But Campbell utterly blows the big moment when he must save his friend in the air show by carrying … well, the same blank stare from which his dashingly dangling ’do can only distract so much. Cliff never really seems in conflict. In love. In thought. In much of anything other than the movie.
During the film’s resolution, Hughes asks Cliff: “How did it feel, strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of hell?” Cliff’s response, perfectly scripted: “Closest I’ll ever get to heaven, Mr. Hughes.” Setting aside that this scrubbed-clean Cliff is any sort of a secret rascal, Campbell just sort of utters the line without giving it any of the wonder that would come from breathing air no one else can claim. There’s a similar lack of oxygen behind his romantic spark with Connelly; neither actor channels alleged real-life romance into on-screen passion or pep.
Nevertheless, enjoying what it saw from daily footage, Disney upped Johnston’s budget from $25 million to $35 million and gave The Rocketeer a prime summer-of-’91 spot. But a fourth-place opening-weekend finish and a $46-million final take scrapped franchise plans. (There’s now a computer-animated TV series of the same name on Disney Junior, in which Campbell performs a voice role, and plans to develop The Rocketeers, a live-action project about a Black female pilot trying to protect the rocket-pack technology during the Cold War.)
Much like composer James Horner’s score ( arguably the most gently lilting fanfare of any superhero film before or since), The Rocketeer skates by on craftsman competency. Jim Bissell’s production design is handsome. Marilyn Vance-Straker’s costumes are aces. It’s no coincidence that The Rocketeer’s eventual cult following got Johnston the job directing Captain America: The First Avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe 20 years later. But that film is proof positive of what Johnson and company could’ve done with The Rocketeer had they not been hamstrung by cut corners or held so tightly to heartfelt, but anonymous, homage to films of a bygone era. Sure, Captain America had a giant budget, and The Rocketeer’s effects, though dated, aren’t really an issue. Even amid the freedom of fatter finances, there’s simply more individuality and distinction in Captain America’s near-mid 20th century milieu than in most of The Rocketeer.
A more unexpected strong suit for Johnston’s career, though, has been character-actor casting, and The Rocketeer certainly rivals the more recognizable names of The First Avenger there. Jon Polito delivers his traditional trench-crawling excellence as Bigelow, the airport owner who stands to profit from Cliff’s powers of flight. Arkin infuses the adventure with all the necessary “can-you-believe-this” shock and surprise. O’Quinn’s authoritative presence spruces and gooses The Rocketeer’s intersection with real life. Margo Martindale, William Sanderson and Eddie Jones add some color as Cliff and Peevy’s airstrip pals. Ed Lauter and James Handy are perfect as a couple of blowhard FBI agents. The great Paul Sorvino plays the role of moral mobster Eddie Valentine to the hilt, and all of his charges have fun spraying away with Tommy guns (especially in a blink-and-wink moment where the G-men and gangsters must team up).
Running away with the movie, though, is Dalton, whose Errol Flynn-proxy Sinclair turns out to be none other than a nefarious Nazi. Well before cranking zee German accent, Dalton delights like an actor who knew his days were numbered as 007 even if the contract hadn’t yet run out.
Dalton toothily absconds with every scene he’s given, from his flawless facsimile of Flynn’s on-set dandy-fop movement to his slight hint of grief over a henchman’s fate and the “I’m going to get lucky, too?” presumption in a moment with Jenny. Sinclair’s reveal as a Nazi also gives the film perhaps its most iconic imagery of all — a chilling piece of propagandized animation that depicts a fleet of Third Reich Rocketeers invading and taking over America.
Even with so many actors, production designers and creatives giving their all, The Rocketeer still comes off as genial and generic pastiche without enough of its own gee-whillikers energy. In the right contemporary hands, the premise could soar. Again: What we have is fine. And that’s fine.