But we still ultimately love The Rocketeer (1991) and you should too!
Though The Rocketeer is considered a cult classic these days, it was a major disappointment for the Disney company when first released. Intended to jumpstart an action-packed franchise, it barely recouped its budget and failed to find an audience until home video. In this way, the film resembles the 1990 Dick Tracy, another pulp homage which bombed upon initial release. (Read more: here’s our UAMC review on Warren Beatty’s colorfully overlooked comic noir actioner Dick Tracy here!)
But while I can see why the relatively arty Dick Tracy didn’t immediately take with a general audience, I have a harder time understanding why The Rocketeer failed. In short, The Rocketeer is a fun love letter to pulp action. Not perfect, sure, but quite enjoyable and full of heart.
UAMC Remembers The Rocketeer
Depression-era pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) craves something more than the air circuses he and his mechanic pal Peevy (Alan Arkin) participate in for a living. His aspiring Hollywood actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) doesn’t understand his ambitions—though to be fair, he doesn’t understand hers either.
Things change when Cliff and Peevy stumble upon a mysterious jet pack left in their plane. Curious, the two try it out and soon, Cliff takes to using the jetpack for heroic rescues, first when a show on the airfield goes wrong. However, the jet-pack is the property of Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) and ended up in Cliff’s plane only because it was stolen from Hughes by gangsters who hid the invention in the plane during an escape from a car full of G-men.
Cliff’s heroics as the mysterious Rocketeer garner the notice of the FBI and Hughes, as well as the gangsters and their associate Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), an Errol Flynn style matinee idol with Nazi connections and a putty-faced henchman (“Tiny Ron” Taylor) on his payroll. Things get even more complicated when Jenny’s connection to Cliff puts a target on her back, forcing her into the clutches of Sinclair and a much bigger plot that endangers the United States.
Pulp Action Adventure at its Finest
Ultimate action movie fans might see some similarities between this movie and the Indiana Jones films. Moviegoers more used to modern superhero fare might compare the movie to Iron Man since both those movies are about a smart-aleck “superhero” who uses advanced technology as his “power” (interestingly, director Joe Johnston’s work on this movie was what got him hired for Captain America: The First Avenger, another retro action film).
However, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the more obvious comparison (which IS ABSOLUTELY AN ULTIMATE ACTION MOVIE itself), as it was a direct influence. Both are set in the 1930s and have Nazis as the primary villains. Both have dashing, cocksure heroes and gorgeous damsels in white. Both update their action for the blockbuster-crazy, action movie-mad audiences of the 80s and 90s.
Action and adventure are The Rocketeer’s bread and butter. From the opening scene, we’ve got plane stunts and a car chase. While never as violent as Indy’s outings, the scenes are choreographed well. The finale on a Nazi dirigible is certainly the best, most exciting scene, worth its weight in popcorn, and as memorable as any of the grand climaxes in any Indy picture.
The late Roger Ebert was correct to note that the prime difference between The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark is that while the later homages and gently kids 1930s serials, the former embraces them wholeheartedly, evoking that same “golly gee” optimism and wide-eyed sense of adventure. One could easily mock the film for being “corny,” but that would be missing the point. This film is self-aware of its corniness while at the same time playing everything straight.
So What Kept it From Being a Success?
If the film has a prime flaw, it’s the pacing, which at intervals is too slow. A more deliberate pace is fine when you have richer characters or a more dramatic, twisty plot, but neither of these describes The Rocketeer. A pulpy, two-punch story like this demands a breathless pace.
The casting is just perfect across the board. Bill Campbell is all good intentions and courageousness as Cliff. I can’t imagine any bigger name actor playing the role as effectively, since Campbell just disappears into the part. Never more beautiful, Jennifer Connelly is allowed some spunk and smarts even when she’s playing the damsel-in-distress. The always-fun Alan Arkin is amusingly eccentric and gruff as Cliff’s mechanic father figure, enlivening what could have been a colorless role.
However, the best performance has to be Timothy Dalton as the Nazi villain. He oozes narcissistic charm. Neville seems to absolutely believe he is the swashbuckling rogue he plays in the movies. When he thinks he’s won the day, he giggles like a little kid on Christmas morning at the carnage. I cannot imagine a more perfect nemesis to Cliff’s straightforward, unpretentious goodness.
A Surprise “Ultimate” Action Movie
The special effects were headed by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic team. They are old-school effects which sometimes strike the modern eye as uneven, with thick matte lines here and there. However, as other reviewers have mentioned, this only adds to the film’s nostalgic appeal. Considering the intentional corniness (“Go get ‘em kid!” says a gangster with a heart of gold as Cliff flies off before a giant American flag.), the occasionally cheesy effects fit all too well.
This isn’t a movie for the cynical moviegoer. Indeed, most of the fans I’ve come across are people who fondly remember this film from their childhood, who watch it because it takes them back to a happier, simpler time and place, much like the innocent setting the film evokes.
I would say The Rocketeer also works for those who were not introduced to it as children, so long as you approach it with the right frame of mind. It has all the action and one-liners you could ever want from an ultimate action film, but it also has the power to reactivate that childhood sense of wonder modern action fare rarely, if ever, cares to dabble in anymore.
Do you fondly remember The Rocketeer? Let us know your favorite scenes or memories in the comments below!