The Rocketeer is entertainment that's as programmatic as it could possibly be, but (importantly) it is still entertaining. (Plus Timothy Dalton is in it, and he was in Flash Gordon!)
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and William Dear (based on the comic book by Dave Stevens)
With Billy Campbell (Cliff Secord), Jennifer Connelly (Jenny), Terry O'Quinn (Howard Hughes), Alan Arkin (Peevy), Paul Sorvino (Eddie Valentine), Tiny Ron (Lothar), and Timothy Dalton (Neville Sinclair)
Spoiler alert: high
Throwbacks just don't throw themselves back much further than The Rocketeer, and when they do it's only because they invest as heavily in a nostalgia for a specific and unmistakable formalism—like the neo-silent pictures, or latterday 70s-style sci-fi—as director Joe Johnston invests in a nostalgia for his film's old-fashioned manner of storytelling. Take away the Scope aspect ratio, the color, and the cheeseball early 1990s visual effects (please!), insert chapter breaks and a few more bullshit cliffhangers, and you'll have yourself something very similar to a Republic serial—actionably similar, really. The Rocketeer has many fine qualities; originality just isn't one of them.
The plot contrives more than it ever has the right to, but in its essentials, it's incredibly simple: a man finds a magical/scientific artifact and uses it to be a hero.
Okay, it's slightly more complex in its specifics. Cliff Secord is an air show pilot, but despite his rad job, something of a loser. He's dating Jenny Blake, an attractive would-be actress, yet just barely; and he's secured the patronage of "Peevy" Peabody, a slumming aeronautical genius, yet they're just one broken plane away from losing their business. It's already a rut, and he hasn't even found the bottom yet.
Everything changes when a firefight between G-men and gangsters ends on his runway. Stray bullets nearly kill him and, worse, destroy his cherry new raceplane. However, something amazing happened when no one was looking: the gangsters hid their prize in Cliff's hangar, and that prize (don't guess!) is a jetpack—an alcohol-burning, self-cooling hunk of super-science, built, then abandoned, by no less a figure than Howard Hughes himself. Cliff and Peevy keep the rocket, of course. They test it, rebuild it, and—when the call to heroism comes—Cliff flies it, rescuing a fellow pilot from a fiery crash. Now revealed, this "Rocketeer" becomes the center of international intrigue. The gangsters—and their paymaster, swashbuckling actor Neville Sinclair—close in on Cliff, Jenny, and Peevy, to take back their loot and deliver it to the shadowy foreign organization whose identity The Rocketeer's screenwriters gamely pretend could be a surprise to anybody, including the film's characters. Given that this movie takes place in 1938, the only twist that would have been shocking was if Sinclair had genuinely wanted the jetpack for himself, and thus engaged in grand theft and murder in a mad quest to avoid the crushing tedium of L.A. traffic.
Take that, commuting peons.
Like an old serial, The Rocketeer is about practically nothing. Its themes run little deeper than "gangsters are bad, but Nazis are worse," "women are hot, but they are fickle," and "flying is cool, but flying next to an explosion is really cool." These ideas run alongside an intermittent "Hollywood is great, but it is phony" satire. It offers some flavor, but exists in the narrative solely to tear down the dreams of its female lead—since something has to, I suppose—while reifying its hero's Real American credentials.
For better or worse, The Rocketeer remains probably the most reverential expression of mid-century adventure pulp since mid-century adventure pulp was a contemporary cinematic genre—possibly ever, then, since when you get down to it, the adventure serials were cheapjack exploitation pictures made to shake the dimes loose from unathletic children. As far as warm homage goes, The Rocketeer must be rivaled only by the Indiana Jones films, but that series still often seemed to take an active dislike of its dickish, graverobbing protagonist. The Rocketeer loves its hero unconditionally—even when he does stupid, brash things, like ruining his girlfriend's career. (Now, the Star Wars trilogy replicates serial structure better, but by Empire it's already become way more enamored of itself than anything that had ever existed in the external world. And Flash Gordon, of course, is operating in an idiom so wholly its own that comparisons are quite inappropriate.)
Johnston's pulp veneration takes the place of any kind of rigorous scene-setting or world-building. It proves a surprisingly pleasant substitute, even if it's probably more for its novelty than anything else. (One imagines that if another film mined a more visible era for its shinier baubles the way The Rocketeer does the 1930s and its environs, it could be unbearable.) Still, Johnston approaches his collection of cultural references with a pure heart, almost never calling attention to them as jokes. For jokes would indicate self-awareness; whereas the best thing about The Rocketeer is how unconscious it feels—even if that sounds a lot like an insult instead.
The Rocketeer's period detail ranges from the natural and nearly obligatory, like the camera fawning over Cliff's Gee Bee Model Z, to deep, sideways cuts that would take an aficionado to recognize, like the makeup on Tiny Ron as Sinclair's colossal henchman Lothar, designed to recall the acromegalous disfigurement of Z-horror star Rondo Hatton, best known—if he's known at all—for his participation in that MST3K experiment, The Brute Man. (Bear in mind, 1991 was a long time before Wikipedia.) Somewhere in the middle, Johnston makes a bid for my own heart, putting Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. (Sadly, he doesn't know me, for the clip features no Gildersleeve.) Then there's the kicker: The Rocketeer's rousingly orange finale, a riff on a notably cool humanitarian disaster that has retained its icon-level cultural currency to this very day.
Even schoolchildren know that in 1937 a hydrogen-filled manatee exploded over New Jersey, claiming many lives.
Occasionally, The Rocketeer does get so buried up 1938's ass that you can't even see its neck anymore, like when Clark Gable crypto-cameos for no reason, or in its wonderful/awful reference to the Spruce Goose—because Howard Hughes is a major secondary character in this movie, after all, and I guess it was either a failed superplane, or showing him saving his urine for posterity. But these missteps are rare.
We can, perhaps, be thankful that The Rocketeer's screenwriters looked at the single most bracingly fannish element of Dave Stevens' original text, Cliff's girlfriend, and realized that it might be a bad idea that the only gloss separating her from literally being Bettie Page was that the fictional character had the conventional spelling of her Christian name. It certainly looks like a bad idea, anyway, from every angle—legal, social, chronological—with the exception of a few very specific angles, like the one below, chosen carefully by the infamously meticulous Stevens in his sexy drawings, the likes of which embarrass me in a way that even all the weird porn I watch does not, for live actors wreaking the most outrageous scenes upon one another's bodies simply do not memorialize the act of a man masturbating directly into his trash can the way cheesecake illustration so often does.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. I hope.
To check myself: I know that Stevens was friends with Ms. Page, was an objectively good draughtsman, and (also) is dead now, but not for so long that I don't feel like kind of a jerk criticizing him. This is especially the case, insofar as I've never read The Rocketeer cover to cover. (That said, my presumptions aren't helped by the fact that when the gander got the same treatment as his beloved goose, Stevens got mad.)
Anyway, I'd be unsurprised if Stevens'
But we can, albeit with some minor ethical difficulty, spot The Rocketeer a political momentum that was retrograde even for 1991. Is the thing fun the way the old serials were? Undoubtedly moreso, given that old serials can be charming and frustrating in equal measure. The Rocketeer surely shares a lot of weaknesses with the Commando Cody serials it takes so much inspiration from—it's decidedly 20 minutes too long, with a plot that circles around and around as the various antagonistic factions run at loggerheads to each other, leading no one to anywhere particularly interesting—and it imposes some modern weaknesses of its own—it is some 40 minutes into the darn thing before Cliff first takes flight—but it more than makes up for those weaknesses with strengths.
The addition of a Star Wars-style Hero's Journey ("Campbellian" refers to Billy, I believe) lends some kind of narrative spine, no matter how saggy, to the elemental good-and-evil tale. Its adventure credentials are so bona fide that chewing gum becomes a crucial plot element. In terms of raw action, The Rocketeer's set-pieces are not the slightest patch on Indy, but that's an unfair comparison if I ever made one; they remain suitably fantastic, considering the technology involved, perhaps even because of the technology involved—there are legitimate aerial stunts mixed in with primitive greenscreen, and while they stick out like a sore thumb, they thrill all the same.
Meanwhile, it's never plausible that Cliff doesn't set his legs on fire, but that's no hill worth dying on.
The Rocketeer is pretty, even when nothing's exploding; it's arguably production designer Jim Bissell's career best work. The zeppelin set upon which the climax is based is simple, physical, convincing, and monumental, and that's in addition to the more prosaic sets—the adorably hideous Dog Cafe, the glorious South Seas Club, and Sinclair's bitchin' bachelor pad all counted amongst their number. But all the art deco sets in the world would be as nothing if not for Nancy Foy's costume design filling the frame with the elegant clothes of Sinclair's world on one hand and the rough-and-tumble (yet so murderously stylish) leather jackets of Cliff's.
It would be futile to deny the enjoyability of the central performances: Billy Campbell's callow hero (almost too callow, really); Tim Dalton's gorgeously fey scene-chewing villain (he has around 80% of the film's good lines); Paul Sorvino's stolid mobster; and the great Alan Arkin's world-weary mentor with his head lost in the clouds. Even poor Jennifer Connelly manages to push back a little against the thankless Love Interest Hostage role the script saddles her with, though—possibly as a result of that—the chemistry between her and Campbell approaches that of two blocks of wood with no matching notches. (And yet she and Dalton look like they might have fucked like beasts in the alternate timeline where Einstein killed Hitler.)
Altogether, the cast gives The Rocketeer just enough dimension to function, without distracting from the basic point—the punching of National Socialists in the face until they fall out a window and die. Which itself is one of the great pleasures of the film, its unwinking exercise in rah-rah patriotism in the only milieu where it could ever make sense. Ask yourself: is it too late for you to serve your country, and sign up for World War II?
So yes, it's a very fun movie—albeit never too overstimulating, and with issues of varying degrees of severity. It was liked well enough by those who saw it in 1991, but it flopped for pretty easily identifiable reasons. Yet even though it's as schematic as, well, practically any film ever made, The Rocketeer is just about unique in its own time, as well as ours, and its rehabilitated status as a cult classic—well, surely it's not totally undeserved.