1 Hr., 48 Mins.
The Rocketeer March 12, 2018
ver noticed how almost none of the superhero movies of the 1990s made any sort of lasting impression? Aside from the earlier, Tim Burton-helmed Batman movies or the steampunk classic The Crow (1994), the pores of the superhero zeitgeist of the era were mostly clogged by forgotten-about pictures like Darkman (1990), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996).
Their commercial failures notwithstanding, these movies were and are hard to dislike. They more or less took after 1990’s deliriously pulpy Dick Tracy adaptation, which necessitated everything be marked by gorgeous comic-book style and kiddish charms. To watch one, no matter your age or the generation of which you were technically part, could almost immediately take you back to the days when your imagination could run wild and getting lost in something C.S. Lewis-related was feasible.
Of all the ‘90s superhero movies, often overlooked is Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991), an adaptation of all the misadventures taken on by the WWII-era serial star of the same name. Fortunately, its fading into obscurity has nothing to do with shoddy quality or run-of-the-mill actioner theatrics; I think that can instead be blamed on the fact that it’s a jaunty, handsome summer blockbuster that isn't much more than a ravishing slice of diversion, or that it’s propelled by a conventionally handsome leading man I had to look up on Wikipedia.
Since we’re living in a decade where superhero movies so frequently also happen to be period movies – from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) to last year’s Wonder Woman – I’d like to think of The Rocketeer as something of an O.G. in that hyper-specific subgenre. It was waxing Hollywood Golden Age nostalgia against a pulp backdrop long before it became so cinematically omnipresent. And it does a terrific job of that, capitalizing on what made Dick Tracy such a novelty in the first place.
Set in a lushly photographed 1938 Los Angeles, the movie stars Billy Campbell as Cliff, a stunt pilot who becomes ensnared in danger and intrigue after he inadvertently becomes the possessor of a mysterious rocket pack. The contraption, which enables him to fly about the afternoon skies with Superman’s same brand of liveliness, is seemingly dreamt up by his right-hand man Peevy (Alan Arkin). It’s assumed that its appearing out of nowhere is some sort of happenstantial miracle.
In actuality, the pack originally belonged to Howard Hughes, and had been stolen by gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his hungry-eyed henchman. To further the conspiracy’s many convolutions, though, Valentine and the boys were hired by dashing movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who’s a Nazi by night and plans on using the jetpack for nefarious purposes to be explained later in the movie. Cliff’s incidental holding of the machine, then, puts him in grave danger – especially after a couple public excursions with the gadget turn him into a media celebrity.
The film’s old-fashioned stylistically, so it’s unsurprising that it turns out to be old-fashioned narratively, too: the movie wears on and it basically turns into a damsel-in-distress sitch wherein Cliff’s aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is held hostage by Sinclair and his cronies until they get their paws on the pack once again.
Elsewhere, The Rocketeer might be a dated snooze. But what we’re given is affable and swanky, a throwback to the times when audiences flocked to their local cinemas to watch their favorite preternaturally talented crime fighters protect a patriotic United States in serial format. This isn’t the kind of movie that digs itself a burial plot in your brain and refuses to leave, no – the stakes are too nonexistent and the stars are too orthodox. It is, rather, the sort you watch after dining alfresco with some close pals on a 75-degree June evening, aiming to be easy and pleasurable. And it delivers. It was that way in 1991, and it certainly is in our cynical 2018. B