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MMYIF: The Rocketeer

 My Misspent Youth In Films...

The Rocketeer
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin
Released: June 21, 1991

A young pilot stumbles onto a prototype jetpack that allows him to become a high-flying masked hero.

What I Thought Then

The first time I watched it I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I knew Jennifer Connelly from. I liked this one a lot, although I don't remember watching it all that often. It may be the first time I ever read a tie-in novelization. Also, I couldn't understand why Elton John's Rocket Man wasn't featured in the movie at all--that seemed like a gimme.

What I Think Now

Was this Disney's first foray into comic book superhero movies? It might be. The film stars Bill Campbell as Cliff, a pilot who finds a jetpack in an old plane that was left there by mobsters running away from the FBI. Along with his coworker and roommate (I guess?) Peevy, played by Alan Arkin, Cliff ends up strapping the thing on in order to save someone's life and now he's being chased by the Feds, the mafia, and Nazis while also trying to patch up his relationship with his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). Hijinks ensue.

The film was directed by Joe Johnston and features an early version of the same energy he would bring to Captain America: The First Avenger. It's nostalgic Americana elevated somewhat by some fantastic performances. Timothy Dalton is appropriately greasy as secretly fascist film star Neville Sinclair, trying to acquire the rocket pack for his own nefarious purposes. Terry O'Quinn is Howard Hughes, but really he's just being Terry O'Quinn. Similarly, Paul Sorvino is here to play a mob boss. See also: Eddie Jones as a gruff old guy, Jon Polito as a dirty businessman, and Pat Crawford Brown as a surly old woman. Literally no one here is cast against type. The high point out of all of these is probably Alan Arkin, who plays Peevy with a real naturalistic warmth. He's basically your favorite uncle for the entire movie.

The action beats are fun, although there's a tendency to just run the same gag over and over again. Cliff falls out of the sky and then has to recover in midair three times during his first flight. Cliff circles a restaurant running into things and lighting tables on fire for a good long while. The special effects are mixed-but-mostly-good. The green-screen compositing of Cliff into exterior flying shots is probably the weakest part, standing out not because of matte lines so much as mismatches in color saturation. The regular airplane flying sequences are probably the most impressive thing in the whole movie--those old planes are gorgeous and the shots of the pilots while they're flying are spectacular. I'm sure 

The story holds up pretty well. It's a bit choppy in Act II, but never so bad that you lose the thread. It goes a teensy bit off the rails in the finale, where we learn that Sinclair is not just a Nazi, but also somehow harboring an entire squadron of storm-troopers around the Griffith Observatory. At this point the mafia and the FBI find themselves fighting alongside each other, Cliff posturing in front of an American flag that somehow doesn't light on fire when he takes off, and Paul Sorvino mugging to the camera and saying "Go get 'em, kid." It's a bit campy. Dalton's accent starts to fluctuate wildly at this point. Sometimes it's British, sometimes German, it varies from shot to shot.

On the whole it's still reasonably fun. There isn't any cringey humor or extremely racist portrayals of anything. This was peak Nazis-as-generic-bad-guys. It's very white. I think the only non-white character is a guy named "Spanish Johnny". The representation of Los Angeles in the 30s might not be accurate, but it has a nice art deco and tommy-gun kind of zing to it. And the planes look great.


It's a little corny, but I was entertained. Watch it with the kids.

Tune in next week to see find out who'll be back...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.


Falstaffe said…
It's really worthwhile to check out the original material, easily found in graphic novel form. Dave Stevens had a fairly limited oevure, but excelled at what he did.The movie was a rare example of respecting the source.