The Rocketeer (1991) — Aim high, air farce

“How did it feel, strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of hell?”

Justin’s rating: Flaming out all over the place

Justin’s review: The Rocketeer is a movie that I usually pair in my head with Dick Tracy. Both were early ’90s comic booky superhero movies set in the ’30s that were positioned as massive blockbusters. Both had tons of merch, promotions, and even video game tie-ins. And both, while stylish and not without their talking points, ended up performing far below studio expectations.

But here’s the thing when you pour a lot of money into making a good-looking film that aimed sky-high: It has a way of finding a long-lasting and devoted audience. So it was with Tracy, so it was with Rocketeer.

I’ve always been divided on whether or not this superhero works as a concept. On one hand, the Rocketeer has a killer art deco outfit (LOVE that helmet) and embraces flight — both rocket- and propeller-powered — as a theme. But on the other hand, it’s a dude with a jetpack and only a jetpack. That’s hard to sell to kids as the next Batman or Superman.

Racing pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell) and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) stumble upon said jetpack after a disastrous test run. Even though it was designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), stolen by gangsters, and wanted by the feds, Cliff figures, eh, might as well keep it and become a flashy superhero. I’m thinking it’s to impress his girlfriend Jennifer Connelly, because who wouldn’t steal the world to impress Jennifer Connelly?

Even as Cliff uses the jetpack and his leather-bound disguise to help out various people, the Nazis (assisted by Timothy Dalton, a frustrated Hollywood actor) show up as another party interested in the acquisition of the jetpack. As we well know — and this movie tells us — it was only the lack of jet packs that kept the Third Reich from taking over the world.

After seeing The Phantom recently, I can see that there was a trend going on that decade to tap into the pulp adventure serials of old. It worked well for Indiana Jones, so why not here? Rocketeer certainly gives its all in this direction, with larger-than-life characters, lots of fisticuffs and firefights, crazy stunt setpieces, and cheesy lines said with the utmost confidence.

If only it had a better plot (and perhaps a better lead). This was always The Rocketeer’s weak spot. A multi-faction scramble over a jetpack was too complicated for the little kids and too all-over-the-place for everyone else. It waits too long to establish the stakes and point everyone in the same direction.

I’m convinced that with a tighter story would’ve made this into a blockbuster for the ages, because everything else is top-notch. There are great sets (the bulldog-themed diner is a terrific addition), James Horner’s score is one of his all-time best — and there’s that amazing art deco outfit to consider. But it’s all draped on a story that can’t get me worked up to care.

What’s weird about watching this in 2022 is that we can look back and see director Joe Johnston revisiting the same look, feel, and style of The Rocketeer with Captain America: The First Avenger. Viewing this movie as a prototype for one of Marvel’s big blockbusters-to-be is interesting, for sure.

But for this movie itself, it remains a good-looking slice of bland cake. Dig in, if you like, but prepare to be disappointed — unless, perhaps, you’re a kid whose mind is still open to flights of imagination.

Didja notice?

  • Chewing gum won’t keep your butt up in the air
  • Can’t rebuild it? Not even with the blueprints right in front of you?
  • Love the mannequin test flight
  • That gangster makeup is genuinely frightful
  • Great use of shadows
  • Rocket car!
  • “He’s been folded in half!”
  • W.C. Fields
  • Is that a girl in a fish tank?

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