Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Rocketeer (1991)

We just recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about superhero movies, but one subject we did get a chance to touch on is what we considered to be the most underrated superhero movies of all time. In my personal opinion, the answer is pretty obvious: The Rocketeer. Here is a film that seems to be well-regarded by most people who’ve seen it, but for whatever reason, it failed to find a large audience and was a colossal flop at the box office when it was originally released. The character of the Rocketeer originated in a comic book series by Dave Stevens and it always seemed that any attempt to adapt it into a successful feature-length film was met with obstacles. Throughout the eighties, The Rocketeer was stuck in development hell as no major studio was comfortable about giving the green light to an expensive comic book movie. However, after Batman and Dick Tracy became huge box office successes and made comic book movies popular again, Disney could not green-light The Rocketeer fast enough and envisioned the character becoming a major cash cow and a pop culture icon. Unfortunately, that did not wind up being the case. The main problem might have been that The Rocketeer was simply too old-fashioned for most audiences as it deliberately emulated the style of a corny Saturday matinee serial from the 1930s, and after the darker, more cynical tone of Tim Burton’s Batman, I don’t think many people were that interested in seeing a movie that followed The Rocketeer’s formula. The fact that the film also had to go head-to-head at the box office with Terminator 2: Judgment Day probably didn’t help its chances either. However, while The Rocketeer may not be a movie that appeals to very cynical viewers, one cannot deny that the whole thing is still a great deal of fun.

One can debate whether The Rocketeer should even be classified as a superhero movie since it’s not so much about a hero with superpowers as it’s the story of an ordinary guy who comes across a device that allows him to do super things. The story takes place in Hollywood in the late 1930s and the movie is intended as a modern recreation (albeit with a bigger budget and much better production values) of the aforementioned Saturday matinee serials, which were hugely popular in movie theaters around that time period. The clean-cut protagonist is Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), who works as a stunt pilot and has an innocent “gee whiz” persona that’s about as white-bread and vanilla as you can get. During one of their test flights, Cliff and his mechanic friend Peevy (Alan Arkin) find themselves caught in the middle of a chase and shootout between the F.B.I. and some gangsters. The gangsters have stolen a mysterious rocket jetpack and one of them stashes it in a hangar at the airfield before he is captured. Cliff and Peevy soon stumble upon it and it isn’t long before Cliff feels compelled to put the jetpack on his back and start flying through the air. Peevy designs a helmet that hides Cliff’s face and makes him look like a hood ornament, and Cliff eventually uses the rocket to perform a daring act of heroism, which turns him into front page news and officially gets him labelled as “The Rocketeer”. Of course, there are a lot of bad guys that want this contraption for themselves, including notorious mob boss Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and the #3 box office star in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who hatches a plan to seduce Cliff’s actress girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), in order to secure the rocket. It’s also revealed that the rocket was designed by none other than Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), who does not want it to fall into the wrong hands. He says this with good reason since Neville Sinclair just happens to be an evil Nazi spy!

Now, no one can deny that The Rocketeer is cornier than the farmlands of Iowa, but that is the whole point and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of its sense of nostalgia. Many popular films, such as the Indiana Jones series, have taken the old Saturday matinee cliffhanger serials as inspiration, but while most of them would wink at the audience and contain a lot of self-referential humour, The Rocketeer plays its material completely straight. What’s surprising about this approach is how well it works and what a solid job the film does at appealing to both kids and adults. When I was much younger and first saw this film, I enjoyed it for its action setpieces and cliffanger sequences and was not yet cynical enough to recognize how hokey the whole thing really was. All I knew was that getting to fly around with a jetpack was the coolest thing ever and didn’t think about such little details as how badly the flames from the exhaust would burn your ass. However, re-watching The Rocketeer many years later, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up for me. Older viewers can still appreciate the film for how well it recreates the old matinee serials and the 1930s in general, and for how clever some of its plot elements really are. As a kid, I had no idea who Howard Hughes was, but now get a lot of amusement out of his presence in the story, especially during a gag involving his infamous plane, “The Spruce Goose”. The character of Neville Sinclair is a delightful villain who is clearly inspired by Errol Flynn, and one of the film’s most fun sequences involves the production of one of Sinclair’s movies, which resembles the old swashbuckling pictures that Flynn used to make. The idea of Sinclair being a Nazi was actually based on an urban legend (since proven false) that Flynn himself was a secret Nazi spy! One of the most memorable characters in the film is Sinclair’s grotesque seven-foot henchman, Lothar (Tiny Ron), and it was only in recent years when I realized that the character was a tribute to actor Rondo Hatton, who suffered from acromegaly, but was able to forge a successful career playing B-movie villains because of his appearance. The use of a Zeppelin during the climax is pretty spectacular and clever (paying off with a great gag involving the old “Hollywoodland” sign), and watching the film today, one of my favourite bits is this hilarious propaganda film, which shows how an army of Nazis with jetpacks are planning to take over the world.

The Rocketeer was directed by Joe Johnston, who was fresh off the massive success of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and while I wouldn’t say his track record in Hollywood is the greatest (see Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman), he does do a pitch-perfect job at recapturing the retro feel of the 1930s and making the film work on its intended level. The special effects find a nice balance between looking very good and charmingly old-fashioned. Some of the effects shots do look fake, but I’m sure that was a deliberate choice since most of the special effects in those old matinee serials were laughably fake. If these effects were done with modernized CGI, they just wouldn’t have the same charm. The performances here are perfect for the material, even if some of them may not seem that good on the surface. Bill Campbell is pretty bland and stiff in the role of Cliff Secord (and his less-than-spectacular career since then shows that probably wasn’t a deliberate choice on his part), but he perfectly resembles a clean-cut 1930s action hero and his performance suits the tone of the film. Jennifer Connelly’s performance is also pretty bland, but she’s the perfect choice to play a gorgeous 1930s sexpot heroine and, unlike her co-star, has since gone on to prove her talents as an actress. The supporting characters provide most of the colour in the movie and Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino and Terry O’Quinn give fun performances in their roles, with Dalton pretty much stealing the movie. Overall, The Rocketeer remains a bit of an anomaly as it’s beloved by the people who’ve seen it, but has never been able to build a large fanbase. One could argue that it simply got released at the wrong time, but I have to wonder when the right time would have actually been? I certainly can’t see The Rocketeer being a big hit if it were released today. In my review of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, I stated that films that are deliberate recreations of the movies of the past often have a hard time capturing a large audience, and unfortunately, I think you could also lump The Rocketeer into that category as well. That said, it’s interesting to ponder how popular The Rocketeer might have been if it had actually been released in the 1930s or 40s. This clever clip shows how an old-fashioned vintage trailer might have looked for it. What youngster from that time period WOULDN’T have wanted to see this movie?!

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