Recent times have seen the release of a certain divisive, big-budget, loud, violent, CGI-laden blockbuster that shall remain nameless *cough, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, cough*. To the Warner Bros. suits the actual quality of the film is almost unimportant, as the very fact that it’s the new Superman film almost ensures that it can’t fail at the box-office. In modern Hollywood, brand recognition is the ticket to success and getting a character or franchise that people have heard of almost ensures you’ve made back your budget before you’ve even begun. As evidence of this, just compare the near $400 million money pile the Man of Steel is currently smashing his way through to the comparatively disappointing $219 million made by the film-adaptation Green Lantern, a lesser-known DC superhero. Of course, the fact that that film was complete dog shit didn’t do it any favours either.
With such a cynical gloom-fest of a superhero movie dominating theatres at the moment I can’t help but flock to an underdog film about an obscure comic-book character that failed to catch the imagination of cinema-goers. No, not Green Lantern, not unless I took a frying pan to the skull. 1991’s The Rocketeer, a Disney film about a Nazi-fighting, jetpack-flying superhero that somehow managed to not do well. Coming out in the same summer as Terminator II and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves couldn’t have done it any favours, but did you not read the word ‘jetpack’? Are you not teeming with excitement to hear more?
The Rocketeer was a character created in the 1980’s by deceased, influential artist Dave Stevens. Intended as a throwback to pulp-characters of the 30’s like The Shadow and Brock Samson, stunt pilot Cliff Secord, the Rocketeer fought against evil Germans and argued with his girlfriend, actress and fetish-model Betty Page, who was not-at-all influenced by the real life actress and fetish-model Bettie Page. Disney had been developing the film since 1983, a few years after the beginning of the Indiana Jones series with which it shares many sensibilities. However it struggled in development with a number of disputes between Disney and the screenwriters, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (also of the short-lived The Flash television series) as well as with director Joe Johnston. The studio favoured Johnny Depp for the lead role of Cliff, while Johnston wanted unknown Billy Campbell. In the end it was Campbell who won the part and the opportunity to fight mobsters, Nazis and the urge to not stare open-mouthed at co-star Jennifer Connelly constantly.
In contrast to some of the grounded, serious, ‘they’re not cat ears we swear that’s not realistic, they’re goggles’ elements of modern superhero movies, The Rocketeer is very much a movie that’s comfortable taking place in a heightened reality, wearing it’s pulpy action-adventure influences with pride. Part of this is the setting, a 1930’s Hollywood that lends itself to a larger-than-life style. The plot is simple stuff. Howard Hughes (yes that’s right) has built a jetpack that’s been stolen by gangsters. The gangsters are supposed to deliver the jetpack to Timothy Dalton, playing a swashbuckling actor that is about as based on Errol Flynn as Betty Page (named Jenny Blake in the movie) is based on Bettie Page…The jetpack ends up in the hands of stunt pilot Cliff, who becomes the Rocketeer, while the gangsters and the G-men try to find out what happened to it. Also, perchance those darned nogoodniks the Nazis will get involved at some point?
…………………………………………………………..yes. Yes they will.
The feel of the movie is a big mark in its favour. The art-deco set designs are easy on the eye and director Johnston really makes the period come alive in a stylish way. If a restaurant shaped like a bulldog is the kind of thing that fills your heart with joy then this is the picture for you. If it isn’t the kind of thing that fills your heart with joy, then I kindly ask you to leave this blog forever without making a fuss.
The dialogue delivers fun banter delivered by a cast of character actors, most of which you’ll recognise from other places. Except Billy Campbell. Nobody recognises Billy Campbell. That’s one of the films drawbacks. Whereas every other casting decision is on point, such an unknown actor getting the lead part can’t have helped the film get recognition. He's a handsome dude and he does have an earnestness that suits the film, but he's not the greatest. I wouldn’t call him bad for the part, but he is just slightly lacking the charisma to really make the character memorable.
Tiger-faced Welshman Timothy Dalton on the other hand is the film’s MVP. Combining the three two things actors love to play the most, villains and other actors, Dalton delivers every line with delightful scenery-devouring panache. Connelly is also good, balancing the Betty character as both an exasperated girlfriend and an earnest aspiring actress, and as previously mentioned supporting character actors like Alan Arkin and Terry O’Quinn are a lot of fun, but Dalton’s gleeful pantomime bad guy that steals the show, whether he’s yelling at goons or creeping on young actresses.
It’s not a perfect movie by any means. The story takes a while to get going. If you’re going to have a movie about a jetpack, you best hurry and get to flying around in the goddamn jetpack. Lacking the big-budget of its summer of 91 contemporaries, some of the special-effects are pretty ropey, especially by today’s standards. But it’s a solid fun time and definitely worthy of more recognition than it has gotten over the years. In spite of being a financial failure, The Rocketeer has had a clear influence on the spirit of modern superhero movies that don’t take themselves so seriously, that is to say, the Marvel movies. Joe Johnston was chosen to direct the Captain America film on the basis of his work here and managed to carry over a lot tone and look-wise to a film that actually had a chance of making some money. The more crowd-pleasing, feel-good nature can be seen particularly in the Iron Man series.
Unfortunately, a combination of the big movies that came out in the same summer, the lack of familiarity with the character and the Disney backing leading people to assume it was strictly a movie for children (it’s not strictly kiddy stuff but it’s still not the most adult fare, Jennifer Connelly lust aside.) led to a poor box-office return, but I encourage you to give The Rocketeer a look. It is reported to be getting the reboot treatment soon, so we’ll see how that turns out. Hopefully it doesn’t go down the same ‘dark’ road that many other reboots receive. What’s that, the director of Saw wants to do it? Excuse me, I have to go stand in front of a truck now!