Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tuesday Review: The Rocketeer (1991)

    “You’ll believe a man can fly.” No, wait… that’s the other one…

    The success of period adventure movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tim Burton’s Batman (which, while set in modern-day 1989, felt like some bizarro 1989 where the 30’s never ended) meant that pulp superheroics where back in fashion, so rival studios set about making their own period pastiches in the hopes of riding the good Dr. Jones’ success. The first such film out of the gate, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, failed to light up the box office like studio Disney hoped, and each film made thereafter performed increasingly dismally at their respective box office bows. Released in the middle of that was Disney’s second attempt at capturing pulpy goodness, The Rocketeer. Released to much fanfare and studio hype, the movie was released in the summer of 1991 and summarily performed rather miserably at the box office. But as anyone with a functioning brain knows, the box office is not an indicator of quality, and despite it’s reputation as a failure, it turns out that The Rocketeer is a rather charming little movie.

    Based on the Dave Stevens comic book, The Rocketeer tells the story of Cliff Secord, an ace pilot who stumbles across a top secret government project invented by none other than Howard Hughes himself: a jetpack. Events lead to Cliff devising an outfit and strapping on the jetpack as The Rocketeer, and he soon finds himself evading G-men, the Mob and Nazis alike. One thing the film has going for it is a pretty stellar cast. As the lead Cliff Secord, Billy Campbell has right sort of corn-fed, golly-gee-whiz attitude appropriate for the role. Jennifer Connelly plays his actress girlfriend Jenny, and the two of them embody the type of men and women of the period - or at least, the way we wished they were, with Connelly looking great in a fancy dress but still not against smashing a wine bottle over a Nazi’s head.

    Timothy Dalton is deliciously smarmy as the famous actor/Nazi turncoat Neville Sinclair, whether he’s practicing his fencing, or schmoozing Jenny in a scene where he’s so charming, he almost makes us forget just how much of an evil bastard he is. Add in some rather wonderful character actors like Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino and Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes, and you have a fantastic cast with not a weak link amongst them (although the Rondo Hatton look-a-like Lothar is kind of half-hearted - think Jaws without the metal chompers).

    As Joe Johnston’s second film, The Rocketeer continues the director’s reputation as a solid genre filmmaker. He may not be the flashiest or the most stylistic, but Johnston comes from the Spielberg/Lucas school of effects-driven blockbusters, where the action and special effects are all serving the purpose of a story and not crammed haphazardly into the narrative. The flying effects still look fairly impressive, although there’s more than one obviously green-screened shot that doesn’t hold up terribly well. The real delight of the film is in the design. I don’t think there were ever really any places like the wonderful bulldog-shaped diner Cliff frequents, or the Hollywood exclusive night-club where the lounge singer* emerges from a giant clam, but watching the movie sure makes you wish such an era really took place. There’s also a climax involving a Nazi zeppelin, but although the effects work is about as elaborate as it got for 1991, it can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic - the movie seems to be building towards a big finish, but instead just kind of stops (and this is a really minor nitpick, but what’s the point in giving Cliff a gun at the end if he doesn’t get the chance to use it?).

    The movie is really a collection of wonderful elements that come together for an entirely satisfying whole. It’s a very sweet-hearted movie of earnest emotions and genuine love for a bygone era. I say it’s time we stop looking at The Rocketeer as a failure and see it for the nostalgic classic that it is.   

    * Played by Melora Hardin, better known nowadays as Jan on the Americanized Office.

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