Review: The Rocketeer

Set in the late 1930s, test pilot Bill Campbell comes into possession of a jet pack that is sought after by evil, swashbuckling movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) and the mobsters he’s in league with (led by Paul Sorvino), as well as Howard Hughes himself (played by Terry O’Quinn), who is working with the FBI, and who is the original owner of the rocket pack. Campbell, aided by his mechanic buddy Peevy (Alan Arkin) give the gizmo a test run. After a few joy rides, the press have gotten wind of this and dub Campbell ‘The Rocketeer’, alerting the attention of the baddies. When Campbell’s actress girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) gets mixed up with rapscallion Sinclair, The Rocketeer must fly into action. Tiny Ron turns up as an ugly, hulking henchman, and Ed Lauter is an FBI guy.

This 1991 Disney superhero effort from Joe Johnston (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, “Jumanji”) is the kind of likeable, cornball, Saturday matinee stuff that would remind the adults of 1991 of the adventures they read about in comics as kids. I was 11 at the time this was released, and whilst OK, it didn’t really grab me. I think its appeal to youngsters then and especially today in 2017 would be pretty limited, but no doubt there is an audience for it, just not as big as there is for say “Superman” (the greatest superhero/comic book film of all-time), “The Avengers”, and “Batman”. It’s not really my kind of comic book fare (the only similar film I’ve liked was “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”), and seems rather outdated and bland to be honest (Air shows? Really? Sorry, just not my kind of thing). Like “The Shadow” (and “The Phantom”, which was even more tepid), it’s a bit of an also-ran in the 70s-90s superhero stakes and already seemed a bit dated on release (It didn’t do much at the box-office).

I mean look at the title character. Now granted, I’m even less of a fan of the somewhat similar “Iron Man”, but a guy with a jetpack? That’s your superhero? Pretty lame in comparison to all the other superheroes out there, though the helmet is kinda cool. But that’s the problem with this film (and the “Iron Man” films too), it’s set in a more realistic world and thus the superhero has been toned down and more realistic. The plot of the film also isn’t of much interest to me, as it mixes “Dick Tracy” comic book gangster stuff (and I loathed Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”) with real-life characters like Howard Hughes (you just know that the film’s climax will involve a blimp) and 1930s Hollywood stuff. The villain is a swashbuckling Hollywood movie star clearly modelled on Errol Flynn and played by Timothy Dalton! I’m a film buff, and perhaps that villain would work for a Sherlock Holmes villain, but a supervillain? Uh-uh. I’m sorry, but as much as Dalton gets the romantic and phony side of his character down pat and looks the part, he makes for an extremely feeble and fatuous villain. The role is just too silly for me (I don’t like Errol Flynn, either), and not really suitable for a superhero film. Dalton is never allowed to cut loose and get truly evil because for the most part his character is more romantic scoundrel than megalomaniac supervillain. The role lacks bite. The one bit of Hollywood I did like was when Dalton ran into ‘Clark Gable’, which is cute considering Dalton himself would go on to play Rhett Butler (badly, despite once again looking the part) a few years later in “Scarlett”. The W.C. Fields impersonator, however, was awful here. Howard Hughes (a character whose fascination with aviation at least makes his presence here somewhat warranted) is well-played by Terry O’Quinn, but in this film Hughes has to end up acting like J. Edgar Hoover and having ties with the Feds, due to the mix of “Dick Tracy” and Hollywood, which is just corny. I really dislike the “Dick Tracy” elements with the Feds, the gangsters like the one played by Paul Sorvino (who is fine, but typecast in a role unworthy of him), and especially the hulking henchman played by Tiny Ron (AKA Ronald Taylor). The crude makeup on this guy is awful and reminded me of the worst of “Dick Tracy”. Apparently he was meant to be modelled on an old Hollywood heavy named Rondo Hatton, but I’m not sure how closely he resembles him. All I know is that he just looked like a big dude with a really bad makeup job, and the Rondo Hatton thing just reinforces how old hat this whole thing is anyway (despite the original source only being 10 years old at the time). Weren’t Richard Kiel and Jack O’Halloran still alive at the time? Just cast one of them and forget about the makeup. Whether Tiny Ron looks like Rondo or not, it just didn’t work for me because the makeup was shite. By contrast, the blue screen FX for the Rocketeer flying scenes weren’t the worst of such FX you’ll see of this vintage (they’re not great, though).

Then we come to the film’s leading man, Bill Campbell. Christopher Reeve was never much of an actor, but damnit, he was Superman. He just fit that one (or dual?) role perfectly. Bill Campbell is not much of an actor either, but unlike Reeve, he doesn’t own this role one bit. He’s boring and nondescript, something no superhero actor should ever be. I mean, I know not everyone loved Michael Keaton as “Batman” (I did), but Keaton at least brought some mystery, dark intensity, and aloofness...some personality to his superhero. Even Reeve had some charm at the very least. Campbell has nothing and brings little, and Johnston’s obvious attempt at finding another Christopher Reeve is a big failure and crucial flaw in the film. Sorry Joe, but maybe you should’ve cast Bruce Campbell instead.

The film is somewhat watchable, let me reiterate. For instance, Jennifer Connelly (who probably doesn’t like this film much), is one of the very best things in the film. She has the perfect Golden Age ‘movie star’ look and vibe to her, and is drop dead gorgeous. Oh, and she’s an actress too, not that this is the best evidence of that. She also has great tits, something that really does deserve to be mentioned (Not that there’s nudity in this, you’d have to see the previous year’s “The Hot Spot” for that. Or see the screen caps on the Net). She has never ever looked lovelier or more beautiful on screen than she does here.

This may well have been the film that brought actor Alan Arkin back into the limelight, of sorts, and as the mentor/inventor he’s really good, as is a pitch-perfect Jon Polito in a small role as an air show promoter. The best thing about Arkin is that most of his scenes are with Campbell, and thus he’s able to pick up the lesser actor’s slack. The music score by James Horner (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Battle Beyond the Stars”, “Aliens”) is pretty solid stuff, and the cinematography by Hiro Narita (“Never Cry Wolf”, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, “Hocus Pocus”) also deserves a mention for a fine use of shadows at times.

This film is no stinker, but it’s not really my kind of thing and is pretty lightweight and forgettable for a superhero film. The screenplay is by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (who both wrote “Trancers” AKA “Future Cop”), taken from a graphic novel by Dave Stevens.

Rating: C+


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