R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Rocketeer

So it seems a daily occurrence now that we get some breaking news about another Superhero movie. Whether it be Justice League, The Dark Knight, Iron Man or any number of other projects, the current boom of pictures featuring spandex wearing do-gooders is a dream for those of us that love the pages of DC, Marvel, and other Comic book publishers. It doesn’t seem as if the trend will stop anytime soon either, as even this year, the four major Comic themed films that hit theaters all made big money (though really only one of them, 300, was any good).

The current boom actually reminds me a bit of the post-Batman wave that hit after Tim Burton’s movie completely mowed down every other movie out that summer. Soon after, a genre that had seemed to die off when the Superman franchise faded away, was back and studios were clamoring for their own hero. The interesting thing, and the biggest difference about that particular period, was that instead of trying to bring out pictures featuring other big Comic heroes, such as Superman or Spider-Man, studios decided to go with Pulp heroes and comics strips to try and build franchises on.

These were basically the heroes of the old serials of the 1930’s and 40’s. While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had fashioned their most popular heroes after these types of characters, as their Star Wars and Indiana Jones adventures owed much to names such as Flash Gordon and others, many had tried to follow their examples and failed miserably. Now studios would try again, and to be honest still continue to fail.

The post-Batman period yielded a financially successful sequel to the Caped Crusaders first adventure, and a mild hit in Warren Beattys Dick Tracy, but other studio attempts at capturing that pulp hero magic with The Shadow and The Phantom met with failure as critics and audiences rejected them flatly. Superheroes would eventually die off again with Batman and Robin. Pulp heroes were already done years before that.

Unfortunately, one casualty of this period was The Rocketeer. Joe Johnston’s pulp-style escapade was a film that couldn’t find an audience upon its release, but upon a second look is actually one of the best Adventure films from the period. Sandwiched between other epics of the of 1991 summer movie season, the movie got lost in the shuffle. Thankfully time has been kind to this throwback adventure.

The Rocketeer Starring Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, and Timothy Dalton. Directed by Joe Johnston

With old school heroics, plucky inventors, Nazis, gangsters, G-men, and one awesome rocket pack, The Rocketeer has a lot going for it. Though its got a terrific, gee-whiz storyline, fun (though perhaps dated) special effects, and a pretty decent score, surprisingly much of The Rocketeers success is in its casting. Though most of his acting career has consisted of TV roles, Bill Campbell, can be proud of the work that he does in this film. He may not have gotten good notices upon its premiere and The Rocketeer didn’t turn him into a star, but his Cliff Secord is a determined, All-American hero.

A pilot trying to find fame on the national racing circuit (if there is such a thing), Secord is an ace behind the stick of a plane. Seemingly fearless when in the air, he even manages to survive through an early sequence in which FBI Agents and mobsters have a firefight that ends up with Secord having to bust out his cockpit and then get out of the plane before he’s burned alive. Secord’s biggest problem isn’t with thrilling stunts or cops and crooks though, its with his lady.

Though her character in the comic was patterned after Bettie Page, Jennifer Connelly is amazing as a much more wholesome love interest for Secord. In fact, though I’ve seen thousands of films, I doubt that many women in my mind are more stunning than Jennifer Connelly is in this film. Not trashy at all or overtly sexy; the perfect picture of the girl next door, and the girl next door never looked so good. Like everything else about this film though, she seems at one with this period, not feeling at all as if she were too modern or out of place within this pre-WWII time.

Though she may be exactly right for this time, timeless is the bickering relationship she has with Secord. Their love is innocent enough, but his boyish charm isn’t enough to satisfy her needs for a more serious relationship. He keeps things from her (such as his plane crashing), and when she tries to be serious, his head is still in the air.

With no plane to fly and his love with Jenny on the rocks, things look pretty down for Cliff, until a gift seems to almost literally fall out of the sky. I love the way Director Joe Johnston treats the mysterious rocket pack in this film. The pack isn’t just a “MacGuffin”, like you would see in a Mission: Impossible picture, we see what the pack is like in action, and we see why it is so important to Cliff on a personal level and to everyone else on a world wide scale. The rocket is a way for Cliff to finally show what he’s made of and show he can be a hero, and when Jenny is caught in the crossfire after villains try to claim the pack for their own, it is The Rocketeer that has to finally save her, not our no-name pilot Cliff Secord.

The movie’s first full sequence with Cliff in his Rocketeer costume using said rocket pack is a thing of beauty. When a well meaning, but misguided ex-pilot puts himself and everyone around him in danger, it’s up to Cliff and his new found contraption to save the day. The action scenes, which are shot using a combination of optical effects and actual air stunts, make use of all of these elements to their fullest effect. While the scenes in which Secord is actually flying may look dated now, they retain the charm of similar sequences from the films they’re trying to emulate. An awesome shot has the Rocketeer falling behind a cloud and all we see for a moment is the fire from the engine before he re-emerges from the cloud to rescue is friend. These shots are coupled with awesome aerial stunts in which Bill Campbell’s double has to climb around an actual airborne plane, thrilling us as he falls off its wings to what looks like to be his death.

As Secord finally rescues his friend (Eddie Jones) and drops him safely to the ground, the look on the man’s face is one of uncontrollable wonder due to his amazing rescue is the same feeling we get as Howard Shore’s score swells, and we see the Rocketeer disappear into the horizon. The sequence simply has a sense of wonder to it that should be in a picture like this. Like the helicopter rescue from Superman or the battle in the jungle in The Incredibles, we’re just given that gee-whiz type of feeling that these movies are supposed to elicit; in fact The Rocketeer has that in spades.

Again though, a lot of this film’s success is in its casting. I love the “aw-shucks” type father-figure that Alan Arkin plays as ‘Peevy’ Peabody, Cliff’s mentor and friend. Arkin brings a dramatic weight to his role that provides real heart to this movie. While this character could have just been a goofy side attraction, similar to Ian McKellen’s role in The Shadow, Peevy is meant to be whimsical, but still taken seriously. One of my favorite moments in the film is when he’s trying to give Cliff dating advice and Arkin makes the most of a small moment of dialogue, turning Peevy from goofy side character to making us wish he were our mention.

Peevy: You got a good thing goin’ on with that girl, Clifford. And I’m tellin’ you right now, if she flies the coop, it’s gonna be your fault.
Cliff Secord: Aw, what do you know about women, Peev? You haven’t had a date since 1932.
Peevy: [wistfully] Flora Maxwell. There wasn’t any point datin’ nobody after her.

Reading it on the page doesn’t do the moment in the film real justice, as you don’t get to hear the longing and little bit of pain in Arkin’s voice. It’s just a moment of genuine emotion in a movie that is kind of meant to just be surface and fun, and it’s a little surprising how well it hits you. In amongst the mugging and action scenes, it’s nice to know some real acting is going on sometimes, and thankfully Arkin isn’t alone.

Other supporting characters from Paul Sorvino’s top gangster, Eddie Valentine, to Terry O’Quinn’s idealized version of Howard Hughes all get to have some fun and make their mark when they’re on screen. Sorvino could play this type of character in his sleep, but he’s able to give Valentine just enough menace to be an effective villain, yet still likeable when he needs to be. O’Quinn’s screen presence as Howard Hughes is worth its weight in gold. Hughes is the inventor of the rocket pack in the story, which was changed from the Comic Book continuity, in which Pulp hero Doc Savage is responsible for its conception. O’Quinn plays Hughes with just the right amount of weight, and another character from this movie becomes truly memorable.

Last, but certainly not least is Timothy Dalton as the film’s villain; Neville Sinclair. Playing the role as if Errol Flynn were a Nazi Spy (which apparently was a rumor at one point), Dalton has simply never been better on screen. He looks as if he’s having a whale of a time playing this role, the man chews up scenery every frame of his running time, and we simply lap it up. If only he could have been this charming when he played Bond, he could have been one of the biggest stars in the world. You can definitely see how awesome Dalton can be in a scene in which he films a fake fight scene that is more than a little inspired by the climactic duel from The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s just another scene that gives this film the wonder and appeal that was overlooked when this movie failed in theaters.

With the supporting actor’s doing such terrific work, Bill Campbell almost gets lost in the shuffle and was indeed not necessarily well received when this film hit theaters, but I really don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with his performance. Campbell simply is Cliff Secord. He doesn’t do anything flashy or try to draw a lot of attention to himself, but he looks like he believes in this world that’s been created around him.

It’s lucky too, that the project had such film makers with a strong vision. At one point, there was talk of changing the movie to a modern setting, but thankfully that isn’t the way the film went. Joe Johnston along with Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo fought to make this a serial style adventure, with a pre-war setting, and that turned out to be exactly the right way to go. Johnston does what he can to present us with the 1930’s Hollywood of our dreams, with cameos from stars of the past, and a finale aboard a Nazi airship which is an absolute show stopper.

There’s a child at the end of this film that runs around pretending to be the Rocketeer. That same child-like appeal runs throughout this movie, giving us the best serial-style adventure that isn’t associated with Indiana Jones. That wasn’t enough to garner the film enough attention to beat its box office rival, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which opened on the same day), time has been kind to this upstart. While we’ll never get a sequel, maybe some genius studio executive will someday see how amazing this property could be as a series and we’ll see Cliff Secord and that hood ornament style helmet again.

Picture Credts: impawards.com, dvdtimes.co.uk, myspace.com, wikipedia.org