Genre Spotlight: The Rocketeer
It’s a rocket.
Yeah. Like in the comic books
Based on a comic book series that first appeared in 1983 by Dave Stevens, and directed by Joe Johnston (who is helming the up coming Captain America movie), The Rocketeer recreates 1930’s Hollywood, complete with gangsters, Nazi spies, and the innovation and danger of the golden Age of Aviation. With a chisel-jawed hero that could have walked straight from the pages of a pulp comic from that same era, and featuring mid-air chicainary and amazing stunt flying that stuck in my mind at the impressionable age of thirteen, the film has always been one of my favourite fantasy adventure films.
From the opening, where James Horner’s beautiful score is matched against a Gee Bee Model Z racing plane being positioned for take off, Rocketeer sucks you into its world of daredevil piloting and evil Nazi plots, an alternate version of 1930s America where Howard Hughes has invented a personal rocket pack, which is promptly stolen by mob thugs hired by the actor/Nazi spy Neville Sinclair for his facist masters. The device ends up in the possession and on the back of Cliff Secord, a young stunt pilot who has dreams of becoming famous and rich. Can he achieve those dreams in the guise of the mysterious flying “Rocketeer”? Can he win his girl Jenny back from the silver tongued Sinclair? Can he stop a nefarious Nazi plot? Tune in next week for the new episode of….sorry, got carried away.
But seriously, it is that kind of pulp action adventure serial vibe that The Rocketeer gives off, with its handsome hero and damsal that you just know is going to need saving at some point. The good guys are good, the bad guys bad, and everything is painted in nice easy to follow strokes. And I love the film for it. You can just sit back and enjoy the ride without having to remember who is on whose side or who killed whose father. It’s good old fashioned simple throwaway fun.
Billy Campbell is perfectly adequete as our hero, Cliff Secord. The character is dumb yet loveable, always thinking with his heart rather then his head, which gets him into trouble with his sweetheart Jenny, who is played Jennifer Connelly, whose big innocent eyes and full figure make her look like one of the leading actresses of the era. She is great in the role, helpless one minute and then holding her own against evil nazi spys the next, while still managing to look beautiful.
Of the rest of the cast, Alan Arkin as Cliff’s mentor Peevy and Timothy Dalton as the dastardly Neville Sinclair are particular standouts.
Arkin has one of the best lines in the film, (when asked by Cliff how he looks in his Rocketeer getup, he replies – “You look like a hood ornament”), and the grumpy old guy act that is his trademark suits the character of Peevy perfectly.
Dalton as Sinclair oozes swarve charm and nastiness, and really steals the film in my opinion. His “Errol Flynn gone bad” character is brilliant, and you almost have to resist the urge to boo him from the moment he appears on screen.
A special mention should also go to Tiny Ron Taylor as Lothar, Sinclair’s monstrously-visaged henchmen. Rick Baker designed the Rondo Hatton-inspired prosthetic makeup designs for the character, which look great on Taylor, but limit his face movements alot when he talks. A minor issue when the Lothar makeup looks that good, I think.
On the subject of special effects, there are some great examples on display throughout the film. This was before the era of cut and paste CG stuntmen, back when physical stunts, puppet work, miniatures and the matte painting were the norm. The combination of replica planes, stunt work and stop and go motion puppetry makes the sequence in which the Rocketeer makes his first public appearance, rescuing a pilot from a malfunctioning stunt plane, all the more exciting when you think about the effort and skill that went into creating it. The slightly jerky movements that stop and go motion suffer from are almost non-existent, and when they do become obvious, they are no less off putting then some of the CG stuntmen movements seen in films today. In fact, for me, they have a certain charm to them.
A forgotten gem, made back before comic book movies were big business and guaranteed money makers, The Rocketeer stands out for me as a great family adventure film, and one that has thrilled me from the first moment I watched Cliff strap on that rocket pack.
Posted on June 17, 2011, in Comic Book Films, Genre Spotlight and tagged Alan Arkin, Billy Campbell, Comic Book, Dave Stevens, jennifer connelly, Joe Johnston, The Rocketeer, Timothy Dalton, Tiny Ron Taylor. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.