Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.
Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore. They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures. Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen. Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video. ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’. It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.
To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film. It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle. That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades. But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger. This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.
Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect. He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary. The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win. That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale. We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time. It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass. The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.
The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle. The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory. The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing. Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution. What undoes it is the lack of impact. The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops. The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats. For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging. It’s not for a lack of running time. It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits. It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.
Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works. The story brings a smile to my face. The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures. What this film needs is guts. I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake. ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection. If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.