Attempted Superhero Nostalgia

'The Rocketeer' (Blu-ray)

by Bill Gibron

23 December 2011

The Rocketeer clearly has its fans. It also has its failings.
cover art

The Rocketeer (Blu-ray)

Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn

(Walt Disney Pictures)
US DVD: 13 Dec 2011

It was the summer release heard round the hallowed halls of Hollywood. As with Jaws and Star Wars a decade before, like the lingering scent of the supreme box office success that all suits chase, Warner Bros and Tim Burton unleashed their long in development take on the Dark Knight, and all ticket/turnstile Hell broke loose. While Superman had sold the ‘70s and overstayed his four part welcome, Batman was the perfect pre-millennial mystery. Even with funny man Michael Keaton in the lead and the Goth oddity behind the lens, audiences couldn’t get enough of the newly forged comic book superhero film. Suddenly, dozens of like designed efforts were greenlit, each striving to unseat Bruce Wayne and his psychological trauma from the top of the popcorn season charts.

One such attempt was Disney’s ditzy The Rocketeer. However, anyone who believed that the House of Mouse was playing jaded Johnny Come Lately didn’t know the legacy of the famed graphic novel character. Another massive mainstream hit - George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s reinvention of the archaic serials from the ‘30s and ‘40s, Raiders of the Lost Ark - inspired artist Dave Stevens to do his own take on the cinematic anomaly. Referencing such vintage characters as Commando Cody and silver screen ‘gems’ as King of the Rocket Men, he came up with a mild mannered pilot who secretly scoured the sky in his jet pack, looking to meet evil (in many cases, foreign war-mongering evil) and exact a little vigilante justice on the jokers. Along the way, Stevens stuck in as many pop culture references as possible, turning his tale into a mini-museum of old time trivia.
When another filmmaker failed to find the proper tone for his adaptation, Walt’s men stepped in and promised to do right by The Rocketeer. That was 1983. It would take another eight years before audiences would see the final result. In the meantime, F/X whiz turned fledgling director Joe Johnston was given the reigns of this massive gamble. Having salvaged Honey, I Shrunk the Kids from the fired Stuart Gordon (yes, Mr. Re-animator), it was seen as a sensible decision. The final piece of the puzzle would be the casting. With Paul Sorvino and Timothy Dalton as the main villains, Jennifer Connelly as a Bettie Page inspired pin-up gal pal, and Alan Arkin as the comic relief sidekick, all that was needed was a hero. TV hunk Billy Campbell (Dynasty, Crime Story) got the nod.

The story, set in the late ‘30s, centers on Campbell’s Cliff Secord, a struggling stunt pilot hoping to enter his latest plane in the upcoming Nationals. With the help of his buddy and brilliant inventor, A. “Peevy” Peabody (Arkin), he honestly has a chance of winning. Then, the FBI chase a runaway mobster right into their airfield practice and literally destroy their hopes. During the clean-up, Secord finds an odd looking metal object. It turns out to be a stolen jet pack, created by aeronautical mastermind Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) and desperately wanted by two competing factions.

One, of course, is the US government. The other is Hitler and the Nazis. With the help of Dalton’s ham Hollywood actor, Neville Sinclair and a gangster named Eddie Valentine (Sorvino), the Reich will stop at nothing to get the flying machine. In the meantime, Secord has discovered the device’s secrets, and good thing, as he soon finds himself, his friends, and his best girl Jenny (Connelly) in trouble. Eventually, the rumblings of world war cause all sides to struggle to gain the air advantage - and our hero has the means of making that happen.

For anyone who sat through 2011’s summer stunt spectacle Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer will seem like decent deja vu. In many ways, it’s a twenty year old test run for the current crop of CG epics. It has major flaws, finds room to bore the audience more than engage them, and lacks a real feeling of fun and adventure, but overall it’s thrilling and quite enjoyable. Part of the reason is the inherent likability of the approach. By staying strictly within the nostalgia of the time period and adding in lots of Golden Age references, film fans find a wistful frame of reference. Similarly, the performances are universally good, with Dalton and Sorvino battling to see who can chew more scenery. Granted, Campbell is a bit underwhelming, but that’s to be expected. One imagines Secord to be a bit of a lox before he becomes an icon.

No, most of the flaws fall right into Johnston’s lap. Just because you helped deliver the Oscar winning goods on several of the Star Wars projects doesn’t mean you know how to handle pacing and suspense. There is never a moment in The Rocketeer where we believe that our hero will get hurt, that his lady is legitimately in danger, or that the big Brute Man substitute is anything more than a Rondo Hatton homage. As a director, Johnston has no flare. He can put images on film, but he can’t make them soar - and for something like The Rocketeer, that’s job number one. We want to believe in the majesty of flight, to find something otherworldly in Cliff escaping the bonds of gravity and discovering the freedom in the boundless sky. Sadly, the HD of the recent Blu-ray release accentuates the obvious greenscreen shots, ruining the effect.

Still, The Rocketeer holds onto its value just long enough to get by. We appreciate the attention to detail and realize that, years later, other, better filmmakers will find a way to make such dense material work, and work well. Hiring Johnston may not have been the biggest mistake here - the technology of 1991 just wasn’t set up for a storyline like this. Similarly, the desire to coattail Burton’s Batman always made this movie feel like a wannabe, not an original origin attempt. Had they made the movie years earlier, Disney would have been seen as mavericks, flying in the face of conventional cinematic wisdom. Here, there’s an aura of “been there, done that.” Perhaps a remake is in order, following along the line of other rebooted superheroes. The Rocketeer clearly has its fans. It also has its failings.

The Rocketeer (Blu-ray)


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