Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

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.

NR: When A Voyage Becomes A Tour

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It seems I’m stuck in a Disney rut.  The object of discussion today is the fourth ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sequel, ‘On Stranger Tides’, which, as Collider attests, has awesome theater displays.  It also has a mediocre trailer, which is embedded below.

So to rephrase the headline, when does an exciting voyage into the unknown (a new story) become a run-of-the-mill tour?  What made the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film good was its organic story and its fresh, witty, tongue-in-cheek take on classic adventure cinema, a spiritual cocktail of ‘Captain Blood’, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, and countless serials.  The second and third sequels attempted to elevate the material into a saga, and while the spectacle was suitably spectacular, it lost some of the magic through overexposure.  I’ve said it before, familiarity kills wonder, and if a sequel shows us the franchise’s hand too early, it becomes tedious.  I’d say that this franchise’s premise has run its course.  A pleasant surprise is welcome, but despite getting back to basics and focusing on fan favorite Jack Sparrow, the new film appears to check off the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ list faithfully and doesn’t try for anything more.  An adventure film is first a spiritual journey, and the sum of the trappings, exotic locales, beautiful people, inventive action sequences, and what have you, is only whipped cream on the pie.  If the plot centers on the Fountain of Youth, this germ should grow through the characters, and should come to dominate the film’s iconography and advertising.  Watching the trailer, I never get the sense that anybody is defying old age or really has any motivation beyond fortune, and greed has already been explored satisfactorily in the previous entries.  I don’t see a story about the Fountain of Youth.  I see a movie full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  An adventure film’s substance is spirit, not spectacle, and I fear that ‘On Stranger Tides’ is heavy on the latter.

Classic Review: Captain Blood (1935)

Now in video!

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  It’s heroic.  No, it’s epic!

He's a doctor, a pirate, an Englishman... and he's out to draw BLOOD!

He's a doctor, a pirate, an Irishman... and he's out to draw BLOOD!

Review: So yeah, ‘Captain Blood’.  Imagine swashbuckling pirates, battles at sea, escaping slaves, clever dialog, romanticized romance, and swashbuckling pirates.  Now put them into a blender.  Now pour the smooth, delicious mixture, which I’m sure you’re quite proud of, into a baking pan, set the oven for 425 degrees, and bake the sucker for an hour.  Now, do the toothpick test.  Is it ready?  Good.  Now cut, and serve to all your friends.  Top with popcorn butter, or if you’re daring, chocolate.  Is it good?  Probably.  But you see, there’s a problem with your latest experiment in the metaphysical culinary arts, as there is with all postmodern pirate movies.  You see, the problem with all new pirate movies is that they are not ‘Captain Blood’.  Only one movie is ‘Captain Blood’, and this is… well, you know.  ‘Captain Blood’.

So I won’t bother spoiling it for you.  Like a truly succulent dish, like great sushi, ‘Captain Blood’ can only be compared to tastes similar to it, which assumes that you have partaken of them.  This movie is so good, dear reader, that at the very moment that I was watching it, it had already climbed up my ladder of favorite films into the coveted realm set aside for ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’,  and ‘Casablanca’.  This film is a rollicking good time, a complete package for the whole family and the individual adventure enthusiast.  This is one of those landmark movies that makes us think of pirates in popular culture not as unwholesome murderers who spat in the face of the law, but as goodhearted sailors forced into a life of rulebreaking because the rules were not human enough.  Whatever moral and historical inaccuracies there are in our common perception, we can lay in large part on the shoulders of Errol Flynn and his cool, witty and moral Irishman Dr. Peter Blood, who charms and swordfights for love, revenge, and England.  But, faith! why wait and read about the film when you could be watching it right now?  Go on then!  Take a bite out of adventure!

What do you think of that, Orson?

That’s what I thought.

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Classic Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  Harrison Ford’s definitive action hero role shines in his debut, arguably the best adventure film of all time.

Heck yes.

Heck yes.

Review:  I first saw ‘Raiders’ when I was about 9 or 10, on VHS.  It scared me to death.  The film’s many surprises, and especially its horrific climax, terrified me.

Now, it’s one of my favorite movies.

The first colloboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas opened in 1981, shattering box office records set by the creators of the film themselves.  Combining Spielberg’s steller direction, understanding of suspense, and whimsical imagination, with Lucas’ inventive story, delivered a one-two punch that is yet to be equalled.

The film used elements of the action/adventure cliffhanger serials of the 1930s to breath life into the action genre.  Indiana Jones, a graverobbing archaeologist, was the protagonist.  Combining James Bond and Humphrey Bogart, he borrowed elements from the heroes of the serials, including a bullwhip from Zorro and a hat from countless others.  The fedora, Jones’ iconic headgear, went on to become his symbol.  Now the fedora is synomymous with Indiana Jones.

The film’s pacing is superb.  There is never a dull moment.  Spielberg uses techniques derived from Alfred Hitchcock to infuse ‘Raiders’ with constant peril.  The action scenes, where some of the most iconic moments where planned on-set, are often parodied or homaged.  In particular the stunt in which Indy slides under a German truck while it is motion, and then works his way back into the cabin.  By understating the action, and keeping it grounded, what might be pedestrian in another movie comes across as mind-blowing in this one.

I mentioned the horror element.  It’s not that the film is extremely frightening, though it is for some children, but that the film critically uses small amounts of blood, gore, and scares to keep you on edge.  The worst scene is the climax, which depicts a man’s face melting off his bones, among other things.  Though rated PG, if it were released today it would earn a PG-13 rating.  Some minor cuts kept it from an R during its initial release.  This is a fun movie, in the vein of ‘Star Wars’, but is much more mature.  It’s not a kids movie, but don’t feel bad about letting teenagers see it.

The film is followed by three sequels, which I will review in the future.  I like parts of all those movies, but ‘Raiders’ is the one I admire the most.