The Rocketeer

Posted by Jose On June - 14 - 2011

We’re a month away from the release of Captain America: The First Avenger and currently in the middle of a comic book adaptation renaissance. And if fortune couldn’t smile upon us comic fans any further, we have a rare opportunity to look back at a time when adaptations weren’t money in the bank. It’s time to take a look back at a time when director Joe Johnston directed a movie based on a comic hero taking on the Nazi menace that wasn’t Captain America. Today we  look  at his first effort… The Rocketeer. Does it hold up today? Does it honor the comic it was based on? Does looking at this make you feel confident about his next film?

The film centers around Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot who relies on his best friend/mechanic Peevy and his girlfriend Jenny to get him through the day, that is until he finds an experimental rocket pack.

Half the fun of this movie is seeing Cliff learn how to use the rocket pack. A pilot by trade, Cliff’s expertise is learning to control a piece of machinery to fly through the air. Once he puts on the rocket pack he is the machine. And through the use of visual effects and the score by James Horner, when Cliff puts on the rocket and first takes flight, you believe it even when he crash lands in mud.

The other fun half of this movie? The villains. Where as a film of this nature would give you one villain for our hero to overcome, this film gives you three! We have Eddie Valentine played by Paul Sorivino. Valentine’s a mobster whose gang is hired to steal the experimental rocket pack. As world famous actor of the silver screen, Timothy Dalton plays Neville Sinclair who is, in reality, a Nazi. Aiding his boss’ agenda is the deformed henchman Lothar. While Valentine and his goons seem to be a Maguffin simply to get the rocket to where Cliff is, both Sinclair and Lothar all the more enjoyable by the fact they’re based in some reality. Neville Sinclair’s character is a nod to the rumor that  Errol Flynn, star of stage and screen might have had ties to the Nazi party. Lothar’s physical appearance is a loving tribute to Rondo Hatton, B-movie star.

Like most movies at the time, the superhero alter-ego was usually saved for one big battle towards the end, and this film is no exception. The name “Rocketeer” is an invention of the newspapers when Cliff first puts on the helmet to save a friend in an air show earlier in the film. As the film progresses and Cliff realizes the importance of keeping the rocket out of the Nazi’s hands and eventually the Rocketeer comes through.

The cast is pretty good considering it was a lesser known character. You buy Billy Campbell as a young man who has the best of intentions but keeps screwing up. Alan Arkin as Peevy is very much an Alfred/Q character but the friendship he has with Cliff seems genuine, almost fatherly. Of course Jennifer Connelly is a knockout in this film as Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny. In a role that could’ve been nothing more than a damsel in distress, Connelly gives Jenny ambition. She’s a college girl with aspirations of becoming an actress.  But Timothy Dalton steals the show. His portrayal of a suave, charming actor hiding a dangerous secret is so hammy and over the top you can’t help but love it.

Before Jennifer Connelly set the record for playing females with issues, she was just a damsel in distress

Sadly, the film is considered to be something of a punch line considering how badly it bombed against expectations. It had to compete with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, City Slickers and of course, Terminator 2: Judgment Day; given the competition, it was no wonder the film didn’t perform as well as Disney would have hoped. And this is the biggest tragedy of this film. It’s so fun you wish it would have done better to see the story continue.

Another problem the film has is that it was part of a wave of failed pulp hero films that tried to start franchises. With the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, everyone wanted to try the superhero bandwagon. But with effects being what they were at the time and licensed characters being harder and harder to come by due to legal issues, Hollywood started mining lesser known characters. It started with The Rocketeer and continued with films like The Shadow, The Phantom and finally The Mask of Zorro. Although, to be fair, Zorro’s film made money and was a moderate success. All of these movies were fun films to see with the family, but sadly not enough families went to see them.

Strangely, twenty years after The Rocketeer, director Joe Johnston will release another film about a young man who dawns a costume to take on the Nazi menace. Okay, so instead of calling them Nazi’s it’s Hydra and instead of a rocket pack, the main hero has a shield, but the coincidence is staggering. Looking at The Rocketeer, it gives The Captain America film more of a hopeful vibe. Johnston knows how to incorporate action and a sense of wonder to the nineteen-thirties setting. This time he has a bigger budget and a more well known character, so time will tell if it’s a bomb or not. But, when July hits and you go to the theatre to see Captain America: The First Avenger, why not check out his first attempt to tackle the superhero genre. In fact, do it as a double feature. You’ll be pleased with the results.

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