Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The Rocketeer

(1991) Directed by Joe Johnston; Written by Danny Bilson and Pal De Meo; Based on the graphic novel by Dave Stevens; Starring: Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino and Terry O’Quinn; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Rating: ****

Today’s Once Over Twice segment represents a mini-milestone for Cinematic Catharsis, as my 100th post!  While 100 posts might not sound like a lot, it’s sometimes been a challenge to keep things going at a relatively steady pace while juggling all of the other personal and professional aspects of my life.  Make no mistake, however – this blog has played an important part, and will continue to be a big priority.  Who knows what the next 100 posts will bring?  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s stuck with me so far.  Whether you’re a new reader or a seasoned follower of this blog, I value your feedback and encouragement. Your continued readership truly makes this effort worthwhile.  But before I digress any further, I now return to your regularly scheduled post…
First impressions, right or wrong, can often be the most important aspect that shapes our opinion of a movie.  When and where we initially watched a film can be nearly as important as the content of the film itself.  I first saw The Rocketeer when it premiered at the El Capitan theatre in Hollywood, and in retrospect, it was the perfect venue to see the film.  The 1920s era El Capitan, recently restored to its old luster, was slightly gaudy and ostentatious, reflecting the tastes of its new owners, the Walt Disney Company.  Much like this grand old movie house given a new lease on life, The Rocketeer was a bodacious throwback to another time.

There’s nothing subtle about The Rocketeer, but that’s one of its charms.  Set in 1938, it harkens back to a bygone era, and the serials of the 30s and 40s that inspired it (such as Commando Cody).  The Rocketeer is the consummate popcorn flick, featuring the requisite selection of sneering villains, damsels in distress and dashing heroes.  It unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, presenting all its conflicts in black and white – there’s nothing that couldn’t be solved with your fists or some last-minute heroics.  This simplistic approach was a refreshing change of pace, but failed to connect with audiences accustomed to harder-edged fare.  This type of retro sci-fi/action approach wouldn’t be attempted again until years later, with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Bill Campbell stars as talented but accident-prone pilot Cliff Secord.  After crashing his racing plane, he’s forced to consider less glamorous work.  But fate deals him an unexpected hand when he stumbles upon a mysterious rocket pack hidden away in an old stunt plane.  Suddenly his life is about to take an interesting, but life-threatening turn. Campbell was unfairly criticized at the time of the film’s release for being too bland as a leading man.  I believe he brings just the right amount of earnestness to the role, however, as an average Joe who gets over his head, and unwittingly becomes entangled in a struggle between the feds and spies.  He’s talented in the air but inexperienced with women, as evidenced by his awkward relationship with Jenny (Jennifer Connelly).

The best role in The Rocketeer belongs to Timothy Dalton, who steals the show as actor Neville Sinclair, a thinly veiled Errol Flynn type (and Nazi spy).  Dalton obviously relishes playing the bad guy, managing to be charming and despicable at the same time.  When he seduces Jenny so he can learn the whereabouts of Cliff and the rocket pack, Jenny accuses him of living a life of lies, to which he retorts, “It wasn’t lies, Jenny, it was acting.”

There’s also some solid supporting work by Alan Arkin as Cliff’s aircraft mechanic pal Peevy.  Peevy proves that there’s nothing some good old-fashioned American ingenuity and a little chewing gum can’t fix.  Terry O’Quinn is also amusing as billionaire Howard Hughes, the inventor of the rocket pack.  There’s also a nod to 30s/40s B-horror actor Rondo Hatton with a menacing killer played by Tiny Ron (with makeup by Rick Baker to mimic Hatton’s distinctive visage).  Connelly looks great as Jenny (the character was originally named Betty in the graphic novel, modeled after underground icon Bettie Page), but she doesn’t have much to do in the film other than provide a pretty face and help move the plot along.  One of the few questionable character choices is the stereotypical Italian gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), although his character takes an unexpected turn (and coincidentally delivers one of the film’s corniest lines).

James Horner turns in another impressive score – among his most memorable.  It’s a perfect foil for the action, adding an appropriate sense of daring and urgency to the proceedings.  It’s tough to imagine how The Rocketeer would have been without Horner’s audacious contribution.

Joe Johnston has been uneven as a director, frequently favoring elaborate action sequences over substance (Not too surprising, considering his origins creating effects for George Lucas).  The Rocketeer was his second directorial effort after Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and was easily his best.  It’s an expensive B movie – no more, no less.  The Rocketeer isn’t filled with psychological subtext or deep sociopolitical commentary.  It exists merely for entertainment’s sake, and sometimes that’s more than enough.,


  1. Good review. I didn't like the movie quite as much as you, but that was because I had read the graphic novel beforehand and I was disappointed by how the filmmakers removed almost all of the more adult parts of it. They actually ended up with a PG rating, not even PG-13, so they were obviously aiming for kids, not adults.

    I do have to say that Campbell was perfectly cast as the lead. He definitely embodied the image from the graphic novel. Connelly is beautiful, of course, but she doesn't get a chance to be sexy at all, which is in direct opposition to the graphic novel. As you pointed out, the character was based on Bettie Page.

  2. Thanks for reading! It just goes to show how many concessions are often made in the translation from book to film. I'll bet the filmmakers were contractually obligated by Disney to deliver a PG rating, but that's just my guess.

    Johnston isn't one of my favorite directors, but I like what he did with this film for the most part. I agree with your points about the leads.