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: Snyder’s Superman

James here.

This is the first article in a new series, News Reflections, here on The Silver Mirror.  When we see something intriguing coming down the wire, we give some commentary, weigh pros and cons, wag a prophetic finger if necessary.  Expect updates bi-weekly, Wednesday and Friday.

First up, thanks to Collider, we have the news that executive producer Christopher Nolan is stepping away from active involvement in the ‘Superman’ reboot to focus on directing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

This leaves the reboot entirely in Zack Snyder’s hands.  Yes, we knew this would happen eventually.  Somebody has to take the reins.

Superman, as I expressed in my review of the 1978 classic, is heroic idealism anthropomorphized.  He’s the guy who always wins, and he’s such a swell guy, too.  Also in my review, I directly contrasted him with Alan Moore’s cynical, nihilistic ‘Watchmen’ and its film adaptation, directed by Snyder.  I do find it amusing that Snyder, responsible for bringing Superman’s antithesis to the screen, is now interpreting the Big Blue Boy Scout for a new generation.  I don’t want to imply that Zack Snyder is the wrong man for the job.  He’s got a brilliant visual sensibility and manages to get believable emotions out of actors working in an effects-heavy environment.  My fear is, because he shows more affection for gritty, postmodern graphic novels than the optimistic pre-Cold War comic books of Superman’s heyday, he may not succeed in communicating the character’s essence.  Not being familiar with the gamut of Superman’s run in print, my main reference points are in film, particularly the superb Max Fleischer cartoons and the Richard Donner classic.  Getting to the point, I must confess my bias is towards the Fleischer cartoons and their pliable, World-of-Tomorrow aesthetic, and I have no wish to see a cynical, brutal re-imagining of the childhood icon.

The World’s Fair-inspired art in the 40’s cartoons has thematic resonance with the character’s soul.  Superman is sometimes aptly named the Man of Tomorrow.  He represents what the artists believe is best in humanity and what will allow us to flourish in an uncertain, often dangerous world defined by technological innovation.  It’s an important symbol, what with humankind evolving into a hybrid race with the digital world, eerily close to the predictions of such novelists as William Gibson.   It makes sense that Lex Luthor, the evil, ambitious businessman, is the most popular villain in Superman’s canon.  He represents innovation, spurred by capitalism, gone amuck.  Lex is the cynic.  Superman is the optimist.

Does Zack Snyder understand Superman?  Can he rightfully interpret the character, as Christopher Nolan promised, in a modern context?  We won’t know until the film plays in 2012.  There’s a lot on Snyder’s shoulders now.  He could either inspire a generation, or drag it further into the muck.  With the future coming faster than ever, we can’t afford the latter.