Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and William Dear
Based on the graphic novel by Dave Stevens
OK, I don’t need to say how much I enjoy The Rocketeer, so let’s just talk about the movie. A box office failure when it came out, long relegated to the stacks of forgettable Disney movies. A recent 20th anniversary DVD didn’t even bother to add any features to the disc past what was on the original. So why would you watch it nowadays? One very good reason: it’s a fun movie.
In 1938, Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) designs a jetpack for the military, but deciding against using it, burns the plans and the stolen prototype gets destroyed. Or so it seems to Hughes and the FBI, when it actually ends up in the hands of stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell). After testing it out and having to save the day when a flight goes wrong, Cliff ends up becoming The Rocketeer…and attracting the attention of the FBI, movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) and his gang of thugs, and even the Nazis.
One of the things that stands out when watching this movie is that, in many ways, this uses a lot of the Marvel method of movie-making close to 20 years earlier. It certainly helps that Joe Johnston (who would go on to direct Captain America) is in the director’s chair. But in general, we have the origin story, we have the definitely good hero fighting against the definitely evil villains, and there’s just that sense of fun. Cliff himself may not be the perfect hero. He can be a bit of a jerk and his flights as the Rocketeer are just as likely to go wrong, with his first flight out leading to him crashing all over the place as he’s trying to save the day (showing that just like Marvel, every action scene is just as likely to contain a few laughs). But at the end of the day, he’s going to fight the bad guys and he’s going to do what’s right. Even when faced with Lothar (Tiny Ron), a thug who’s so imposing and immovable that Cliff can’t seem to put a dent with him, he still keeps fighting. In the same way, the movie captures the feel of the comics, both Dave Stevens’ original and the revival that has happened since then.
Of course, for the mood that has held up with this movie, there are some flaws that stand out. For one, particularly in the second act, it can be hard to tell who’s on who’s side. It doesn’t help that the thugs and the FBI can look very similar, and Lothar’s role in the whole thing isn’t really clear. It’s confusing, even though it all gets sorted out by the end. But then again, it also gives a general feeling of being in Cliff’s shoes. He doesn’t really know who’s good or bad in the whole mess of things, he just knows what he needs to do to be good. And there’s also the flying special effects. Plenty of them are excellent, especially for the 90s. Some of them aren’t so much. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it can be rather noticeable.
It’s a shame that The Rocketeer has gone forgotten as little more than a footnote nowadays. It holds up well, with exciting action and a nice sense of humor.