Insomniac Movie Theater: The Rocketeer

by Trevan McGee on September 2, 2010

in Columns,Insomniac Movie Theater

In prepping for this week’s entry, I realized that there aren’t many family-friendly movies that fall into this loosely defined category. There are a few animated movies that would work “The Black Cauldron” and “The Iron Giant” are both under-appreciated, but the production values elevate both of those examples above the usual camp I write about here. Both movies are flops and I’ll write about them eventually, but not today.

No, today’s entry is reserved for a live-action Disney movie, 1991’s “The Rocketeer.”

The RocketeerBased on the comic book by Dave Stevens, “The Rocketeer,” in print form at least, was a loving homage to pulp heroes of the 30s and 40s. Cliff Secord was a stunt pilot who found a rocketpack in his plane’s passenger seat and quickly became a Nazi-bashing hero with his beautiful girlfriend Betty, who bared a striking resemblance to Betty Page, by his side.

In movie form, “The Rocketeer” is a great example of how a movie can get all or most of the big elements from the source material right, but fail at the fine details that give the original property its personality. The big screen adaptation follows stunt pilot Cliff Secord, as he finds a rocketpack, and eventually bashes Nazis and mobsters with his beautiful girlfriend Jenny, who bares a striking resemblance to Betty Page, by his side.

So what went wrong? On paper “The Rocketeer” was a success, turning a tidy $11 million profit, but why was it so quickly dismissed by critics and the general public?

There are two reasons: The movie is remarkably bland and unmemorable. But the second, bigger reason, was that “The Rocketeer” was released two weeks before “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” a movie so popular and successful that it cast a shadow over every summer movie that came after it and before it.

“The Rocketeer” should be good, old-fashioned Nazi-bashing fun, but it never really gets there primarily because it never feels old-fashioned. The movie is always aware that it is a movie, even if the characters aren’t. All but two of the settings are unmemorable and could fit in just about any modern time period. And visually, it’s too clean and neat to embrace its pulp influences.

On a production level, the costumes are spot-on, especially The Rocketeer’s and Jenny’s, and the special effects work pretty well for a 20-year-old movie. They aren’t timeless by any means, but they do age better than expected. The plot is monotonous and straightforward except for two redeeming elements: A Nazi-sympathizing antagonist based on Errol Flynn and played perfectly by Timothy Dalton and a version of Howard Hughes that is less the tortured genius from “The Aviator” and more Q from the James Bond series.

Here’s Hughes’ first appearance he’s played by Terry O’Quinn:

Later on, Hughes serves as an exposition machine, explaining to Cliff and the audience why the rocketpack is so important. It appears the Nazis have plans to create entire armies of flying soldiers that the US would helpless to defend against. That doesn’t really seem plausible, as rocketmen are still men, and therefore more susceptible to gunfire than, say, an airplane, but whatever. These are the same Nazis that use the Hindenburg as a getaway vehicle in the movie’s climax.

Hughes explains Germany’s diabolical plan through an animated propaganda film, which is one of the movie’s high points because of its stark imagery and attention to detail. When preparing to rewatch “The Rocketeer,” this was one of three scenes I could even sort of remember.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s protagonists are both about as memorable as a bowl of porridge. Billy Campbell looks the part of Cliff Secord, but he lacks any kind of personality or charisma needed to be a leading man, especially a dashing leading man required of the 1930s films that the movie failed to emulate. And while she isn’t given much to work with as Jenny, the resident love interest/damsel, Jennifer Connelly still delivers a dull performance especially in the company of better actors. For example:

Oh, ever-present soundtracks. How I hate you.

There are a couple of scenes that give “The Rocketeer” a pulse, the first of which is on the set of Neville Sinclair’s swashbuckling movie, where we see some nice throwbacks to the movies of the time, their bigger-than-life sets, and Old Hollywood movie stars. Had the movie featured more of these references to the era it may have achieved at least some cult status. Ditto for the final scene, which takes place atop and inside a giant Nazi zeppelin subtly positioned over the Hollywood sign. It’s the kind of epic, derring-do action the entire movie needed and it’s relegated to the final reel.

Let’s hope director Joe Johnston finds a better balance between nostalgia, pulp, and exposition in time for his next movie “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Otherwise history might repeat itself.

“The Rocketeer” is the first entry in Insomniac Movie Theater that actually might cure insomnia. There have been worse entries, sure, but movies like “Barbarella” or “Battlefield Earth” are at least watchable in their horribleness. “The Rocketeer” is a beige movie. Unremarkable, unmemorable, and bland.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James September 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

Loved it as a kid, but haven’t seen it in years. I do love that premise, that era, and just the pulp influences as you said. I’d have to see it again to see how devoid it really is of I guess what it should be. That is why I was looking forward to Johnston directing Captain America, but you got me. I’ll rewatch The Rocketeer.


2 Erik November 28, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Watching the movie right now, and your review is spot on! I also wish for more movies that take place in this era, with art deco and the attitudes and clothes and all… but hell yeah everything is dirty and detailed in life no mater what year it is, and actors are more believable without constantly clever one-liners some film makers don’t seem to believe this. The need to spend some time with a crappy job and the typical people. Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick, Robert Mulligan, and others understand that. Good luck to Joe Johnston, I know he can pull off the next film… but it would help if he read your review.


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