In Retrospect: The Rocketeer
By Ally Stuart
You know what’s cool when you’re a kid? Jetpacks.
Arguably, jetpacks are always cool, but when you’re a kid, they’re extra cool. They’re especially cool when paired with an awesome helmet with a fin on it, as is the case with the bronze-gold helmet donned by the lead character of Disney’s The Rocketeer, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell). Combined with the the Rocketeer’s trademark brown leather jacket and aviator britches, death defying feats of aviation, and (spoiler alert) Nazi-smashing hi-jinx, you’ve got the formula for childhood hero-worship on your hands.
The Rocketeer turns 26 this year and the kind editors here at the Nerd Machine have kindly allowed me the opportunity to take a look back at one of my childhood favourites to see if it still holds up after all this time.
So let’s take a trip the way-back machine to 1991, shall we? (Please note: I’ve already given a spoiler alert and the retrospective that follows is not spoiler free…)
The film starts strong, introducing the Rocketeer’s jetpack; our hero, Cliff; his mentor/father figure, Peevy (Alan Arkin); Cliff’s girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly); and Cliff’s main goal of winning a national airplane race in his and Peevy’s Gee-Bee racer all in short succession. The storytelling is solid, tight, and detailed, effectively combining visual details with dialogue to give the audience just enough background, without being heavy handed about it, while setting up the circumstances that lead to Cliff’s discovery and eventual need to use the jetpack.
In all honesty, I’d forgotten that Cliff’s transformation into the Rocketeer is originally motivated as much by his need to pay his debts as it is his own thrill-seeking nature. As a child, the fact that he was ‘in it for the money’ was probably lost on my ‘awed by shiny jetpacks’ child’s brain.
His interpersonal conflict with his aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny, was also lost on me at that age. Not so, as an adult. Despite the fact that actors Campbell and Connelly, did, in fact, date, their chemistry is somewhat lacking and their characters seem like a miss match for each other, with each holding their respective ambitions more important than their relationship.
Jenny’s pursuit of an acting career is what puts our hero on a collision course with the film’s villain, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who originally arranged for the jetpack’s theft from the lab of one Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn, in a surprising bit of scene stealing) by a gang of local mobsters and created the debt which inspired Cliff to become the Rocketeer. Cliff and Jenny catch his attention after a surprise visit to Jenny at work, on the set of one of Neville’s films, is an utter disaster that emphasizes my earlier point regarding their incompatibility as a couple.
In my personal opinion, Dalton’s performance is the stand-out of the film. He plays the Errol Flynn-esque Sinclair with enough charm and poise to make Jenny’s starstruck adoration understandable, especially when compared to Cliff’s often dismissive behaviour toward her budding career, but doesn’t allow Sinclair’s villainy to stray too far into the outlandish or cartoonish. That being said, the sequence between Sinclair and Jenny after he cholorforms and kidnaps her upon realizing that she’s the key to getting his hands on the Rocketeer’s jetpack, is downright creepy; Dalton at his sleaziest. Jenny plays him with ease, catering to Sinclair’s ego in a way that proves she a far better actress than her film credits would attest, and, during a daring escape attempt, discovers what the FBI agents who are also searching for the Rocketeer and his jetpack have not been able to: Neville Sinclair is (gasp!) a Nazi agent.
The film’s climax is campy, over-the-top bit of genius, involving a gunfight between the FBI agents who’ve been chasing the jetpack, the mobsters who are working for Sinclair up until it’s revealed that he’s a Nazi, and the sixty-some Nazi commandos Sinclair has hiding in the bushes at the location of the exchange of Jenny for the jetpack, in addition to Cliff fighting a giant on top of a Zeppelin before the final boss-fight with Sinclair on the Zeppelin’s flight deck. Our hero wins the day, with the help of his best girl, his lucky chewing gum, and a little bit of deus ex Howard Hughes, leaving a destroyed Zeppelin and the Nazis’ dream of an army of unstoppable rocket troopers in flames behind him.
It’s almost too much. Almost. However, given that the source material is a pulp comic, it works. The thing that makes it work, and stand the test of time, is the film’s commitment to its’ pulp aesthetic (which, it should be noted, eventually helped win director Joe Johnston the job of directing Captain America: the First Avenger). Everything about the film, from the sets, to the costumes, to the actors’ diction, creates a world in which the Rocketeer could believably exist.
An entertaining, engaging watch, the Rocketeer is definitely worth a revisit or, if you haven’t seen it, a first time viewing.