The Film: The Rocketeer (1991)
The Principles: Joe Johnston (Director). Billy Campbell. Jennifer Connelly. Alan Arkin. Timothy Dalton. Paul Sorvino. Terry O’Quinn.
The Premise: A young, naïve race pilot (plane racer?) ends up over his head when he finds a top-secret jetpack that thrusts him into the spotlight as an unlikely “superhero” and the target of the Mafia, the FBI and the Nazis.
Is It Good: Almost. I know – I’m in the minority on this one, but outside of nostalgia I don’t quite understand why this is as universally loved as it is. It feels like an extended prologue – big zeppelin set piece aside – and it never seems to be able to capitalize on the momentum it does indeed start to build from time to time. Narratively it’s extremely paint-by-numbers and Johnston isn’t ever able to just cut loose and let things get crazy. And when you read that premise I wrote above, anybody with an active imagination is going to be able to conjure up images that get exceedingly crazy – crazier than a mid-budget Disney picture from the early 90s is going to be able to achieve, but there’s got to be a happy medium somewhere and, when regarding the overall product, it feels like he (or maybe an averse-to-risk Disney, as some reports would have it) is content to just let the whole film coast upon a concept and trust that the viewer is going to be too lost in a sea of aesthetic charm (of which there is an abundance, to the film’s credit) to notice any shortcomings.
But the shortcomings are there. Outside of the narrative tediousness, there’s not a WHOLE lot to be said for the performances – everybody is passable but no one seems to be exceedingly special, outside of a few lines here and there. Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Alan Arkin – all of these guys have a surplus of charm and presence that just feels restrained. There’s no sense of danger or urgency. And I’m not one of those who wants to inject gritty realism into a kid’s movie – but take Charles Muntz in Up. That guy was DANGEROUS. He was a complete and total Bad Guy and that was conveyed with nothing more than computer animation and the voice work of Christopher Plummer. Timothy Dalton can play a Bad Guy with the best of them, but here he was a complete non-threat, which is unfortunate. Paul Sorvino got to simmer a little more, which was fun (and made his switch to Good Guy at the end play really well), but that’s about it. Connelly was a non-entity (not entirely her fault) and it’s telling that the only thing you ever hear people talk about when it comes to her appearance here is, well, her appearance. And hey – I appreciate it as much as the next guy – but sexy dresses and ample cleavage do not a great performance make. Even Billy Campbell – who’s supposed to be the Big Hero – never seems to find that turning point in Cliff Secord. He always feels like a guy who’s on the cusp of being great, but hasn’t been pushed over the edge into greatness. Not ALL of that is Campbell’s fault, as Secord’s only moment of selfless heroics come towards the beginning when he saves that one guy’s life in the plane (you’ll forgive me for having forgotten his name). Everything else he does is motivated by jealousy, insecurity, selfish curiosity and then FINALLY love, when he goes to rescue Jenny from the Zeppelin.
And then there’s the fact that the pilot from the beginning and Jenny are the only two people who need saving and BOTH of them are only in harm’s way because of the choices that he made when he found the jetpack. Outside of the house shootout and the Zeppelin there are really no stakes and nothing about Cliff Secord ever feels heroic. And that’s fine in and of itself if the movie wants to make a commentary on those things, but it doesn’t – and, as such, it fails.
Is It Worth A Look: It is, actually. I mean, yeah – I just hated on it like it was the Tea Party but it isn’t THAT bad. It’s a decent little movie that is only frustrating because it squandered so much potential. I mentioned the aesthetic charm earlier and there is indeed a bunch of that – Johnston and his crew did a great job of capturing the period with all of their little sets. A lot of people cite the South Seas Club as a standout and that’s true – it looks phenomenal. As is the iconography. The Rocketeer in full regalia is one of those images that, if you were born at the right time, is seared into your imagination. Everything about that look – from the helmet to the rocket to the leather jacket – it’s incredible. And that still holds up. I don’t want to oversell it as some sort of visual masterpiece, but it is satisfying in its art-design and there are indeed some moments (some more brief than others) of visual mastery. If looking at the trailer for Captain America is any indication, it’s a talent that Johnston was able to build upon.
But at the end of the day – it’s just a cute little movie. And that upsets me. Because it should have been more. It COULD have been more. It’s easy to blame Disney for the budgetary constraints, but the fact of the matter is, even if Johnston HAD gotten that extra $6 million it wouldn’t have mattered because he still would have spent it on a script and performances that were lacking in any real imagination and emotion outside of the initial concept and the art design. Up doesn’t work because of its multi-million dollar animation budget. Up worked because it was exploding at the seams with imagination and honest emotion. The Rocketeer needed a whole helluva lot more of that and it would have been incredible, budgetary constraints be damned. Also, I don’t know why I keep comparing the two – I guess it’s just the fact that both of them take place largely in the sky and have similar final set pieces.
Random Anecdotes: I was 11 when this came out and it was the very first time I remember movie marketing captivating every single fiber of my imagination to the point where I was frothing at the mouth waiting for it to hit theaters. And when I finally DID go see it, a friend of mine wanted to come along, so my Mom dropped us off at the theater (gotta love small towns) and rather than us sit there and watch, he became far too enamored with the theatre’s small arcade so we ended up spending 3/4ths of the movie in there. I’d always considered it a lost opportunity and spent the next 20 years sort of idealizing the movie based upon the nostalgia of how the marketing affected me, but had somehow managed to never revisit it until a week or so ago. Whatever was left of 11-year-old-me was kind of glad we spent the time in the arcade.
So, I suppose it’s fair to lob the old “Well you’re just mad because it didn’t live up to 20 years worth of expectations” argument at me. But I really don’t feel like that’s the case. I’m glad I waited until now to see it so that I could look at it objectively and on its own terms WITHOUT the residual affects of the marketing coloring my perception. Sure that poster still makes me happy and sure seeing that costume kinda opens the nostalgia floodgates, but I’m old enough now to separate the two. The Rocketeer is a cute little movie, but – nostalgia and decades-old expectations aside – it truly is an objective let-down.
Cinematc Soulmates: Might as well mention Up one more time. Captain America. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.