My husband apparently loved this movie when he was a kid. I do believe I’ve even seen a picture somewhere as him dressed up as the Rocketeer. Oh yes. Accordingly, then, this was on his Netflix queue, to see if it still passed muster. It did! Plus, he was too young to appreciate Jennifer Connelly the first time around, so maybe he even enjoyed it a little bit more. Hee!
And me? I thought it was cute. All the right pieces of a hero story. Good-hearted guy with zany sidekick. Dishy damsel in distress. Dastardly villian. Just the right amount of scary stuff going on, exciting “action” sequences … yeah. It works.
Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell, earnest) is a down-and-out pilot. Together with his buddy Peevy (Alan Arkin! With hair!) he has built a spiffy plane with high hopes of racing it at “Nationals”. An accidental tangle with the Feds and some mobster types, however, leaves the plane destroyed, Cliff and Peevy in debt, and a mysterious package stowed away in their hangar. The package, it turns out, is a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes. Yep, that Howard Hughes. You see, the year is 1938, and the US, although not yet involved in World War II, is hoping to develop the latest and greatest technology before Hitler can. Peevy and Cliff are intrigued, naturally. What they don’t know is that the rocket was the object of the FBI/mobster chase that left them in ruin. The mobsters are trying to steal the rocket, and the Feds are trying to get it back to Mr. Hughes.
The mobsters, it turns out, are in league with Neville Sinclair, the “number three box-office star in America” (Timothy Dalton, absolutely perfect). Turns out he’s a Nazi agent. Gracious! While they all scramble to find the rocket, Cliff runs to tell his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly, yowza!) all about his find. She, as fate would have it, is an extra in the next Neville Sinclair vehicle. He, of course, overhears Cliff’s confession, and decides to seduce Jenny in an attempt to get the rocket back. At this point, the action starts. Everyone’s after the rocket. Cliff just wants to rescue his girl, so he dodges both mobsters and Feds in order to play the hero. The climax involves a showdown at Griffith Observatory and then aboard a zeppelin. It all goes about how you’d expect, and there’s even the requisite opening for a sequel at the end, although part II never happened. Alas.
It’s a cute movie. It was apparently based on a appropriately pulpy graphic novel, and Disney was indeed hoping to start a franchise, complete with an amusement park ride. I guess, though, that the movie-going public at the time wasn’t buying into the “comic book hero” movie yet. I’m kind of surprised nobody’s contemplating a Rocketeer reboot at this point. (Oh wait, it would pretty much just be Iron Man.) You see, what The Rocketeer is, in fact, is a comic book hero origin story. It has all the same pieces as the recent spate of comic book movies; it’s just not as sophisticated. We’re missing the slick one-liners, the epic scale, and the dazzling special effects, but it’s the same thing. It’s just a prototype.
In some things, frankly, I think it does a lot better than some of the more recent movies. As stated, Dalton is totally fantastic as the movie-star villain. His character is obviously an Errol Flynn type (he having actually been suspected of being a Nazi spy), so he’s suave and swashbuckling, and appropriately over the top. Connelly as the damsel (only sometimes) in distress is enjoyable. The supporting cast, led by Arkin and Paul Sorvino (as the mob boss), along with the always sleazy Jon Polito, all perform their duties as needed. Campbell, the star, is perhaps not up to snuff, but he doesn’t really need to do much beyond being handsome and earnest. So, you know, it works. Today’s audiences will of course compare it to what’s come after, but I think The Rocketeer set the stage in some ways, and is still worth a watch.