Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Film (4 out of 5 stars)
The Rocketeer is a throwback to the serials of the thirties which is a good thing in my book since it captures some of the feel of other movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was also a homage to the fun and adventurous movies that Lucas and Spielberg grew up on. The director of this movie is Joe Johnston who worked for George Lucas for years and clearly shares the same affinity for the period as Lucas does. (In fact he later returned to this period when he directed Captain America- The First Avenger). Like the old serials, this movie focuses on an unlikely protagonist who becomes hero during his swashbuckling adventures while avoiding death at every turn by evil villains. In fact, this originated as a comic book by Dave Stevens and was one of the first to make the transition to a film, beating Batman, Spiderman, and the rest.
The movie opens during 1938 in Los Angeles, with a rocket pack being stolen from Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) by some henchmen who work for a mobster named Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino). With the FBI hot on their trail, the mobsters race to a nearby airfield where they are caught but not before the rocket pack is hidden in one of the planes. The rocket pack is later found by stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and his mechanic “Peevy” Peabody (Alan Arkin) when they go to look at the damaged plane. Cliff wants to use it right away, but Peevy cautions him to wait until they understand how it works and was put together. When he learns that his men failed to return the rocket pack to him, Valentine is forced to inform his movie star employer Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) of their failure and he’s dispatched to get it again.
The movie really gets moving when Cliff finally dons the rocket pack along with the helmet that Peevy made, to rescue a friend in a malfunctioning plane which is witnessed by a crowd. Since Cliff was anonymous because he had on the mask, he is dubbed “The Rocketeer” by the media. When Cliff visits his actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) on the set she is working on along with Sinclair, he accidentally gets her fired after he accidentally causes an accident. Sinclair, who had been listening to their conversation, overhears Cliff trying to tell Jenny about the rocket pack he’s been searching for. As soon as Cliff leaves, Sinclair invites Jenny to join him for dinner at the South Seas Club while he sends his hired muscle Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) to the airfield to find Cliff and retrieve the rocket pack.
Lothar tracks Cliff and Peevy down and manages to steal the rocket schematics that Peevy had made while Cliff and Peevy escape with the rocket pack in the midst of gunfire from the FBI. They are followed by Valentines’s men to a diner where overhears one of them call Valentine and learns that Jenny is with Sinclair and that Sinclair is the one working with Valentine. Realizing that he needs to save Jenny, Cliff escapes but during the gunfight, the rocket pack is hit by a ricochet bullet which Peevy patches up with gum. Cliff manages to sneak into the Club, but before he can rescue Jenny she is kidnapped by Sinclair, who takes her to his place and tries to seduce her. Jenny catches him off guard and knocks him out and discovers that he is a Nazi spy but before she can escape she is captured again.
Sinclair leaves a message for Cliff, telling him to bring the rocket pack to the Griffith Observatory, which he will trade for Jenny. After getting caught by the FBI and taken to Hughes, Cliff learns that the Nazis have been trying to build their own rocket packs to aid their efforts to take over the United States. Since he has no intention of returning the rocket pack to Hughes until Jenny is saved, Cliff manages to escape the FBI but accidentally leaves the details of the exchange behind, telling the FBI where to intercept him. When Cliff arrives at the designated spot, he sees Sinclair, Lothar, and Valentine and his henchmen waiting for him. It’s not long before Nazi commandos and the FBI enter the fray as well and an all out melee occurs. It will be up to Cliff (fully dressed in his Rocketeer outfit) to save Jenny and stop the Nazis from getting their hands on the rocket pack!
I’ve always liked this film and its old-fashioned charm. Cliff radiates an all-American every-man charm and the bad guys are bad guys, with no moral ambiguities. While the first half of the movie moves fairly slow as it builds up, once Cliff starts using the rocket pack it’s a lot of fun. Billy Campbell was an unknown actor at the time and an excellent choice to play this kind of am earnest role which is hard to pull off. Jennifer Connelly makes for a very beautiful girlfriend that has some spunk to her while Alan Arkin is great as the gruff mechanic Peevy. This was the first time I was introduced to Terry O’Quinn long before he became my favorite on “LOST” and he does a great job as the brilliant Hughes. I also remember being somewhat surprised to see Timothy Dalton as a dastardly villain (he was James Bond after all) but he does a great job as the movie star turned spy Sinclair. A big reason this movie has resonated with me over the years (and still does) is the fact that every boy dreams of having a rocket pack to fly around with. That dream grew even more when we saw Boba Fett fly around in Return of the Jedi before being unceremoniously wasted as Sarlacc show. This movie taps into that collective dream and combined with some winning performances, cool effects, and a retro 30′s era charm, this adventure is still a lot of fun to watch!
Making it’s entrance in high definition, this 1080p (2.35:1) transfer of The Rocketeer looks better than it ever has, but it’s not perfect. There’s some nice detail present but there’s also some light softness from time to time that doesn’t really detract from the movie, but it is noticeable. Colors are well represented here in all of their variety and black levels are fairly solid. Flesh tones are natural looking and consistent and Jennifer Connelly has never looked lovelier in this movie.
Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
The Rocketeer’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn’t fare as well as the video quality as it shows its age with dialogue that’s hit or miss. In some scenes, the dialogue is clear and clean, while in others it’s muffled and weak. It’s still better than the previous DVD’s audio quality, but I was hoping for something more. The rear speakers offer some decent directionality which adds some excitement and James Horner’s score gets the most attention which is ok with me since it’s a great score. This mix could have been improved a lot more but I will take what I can get.
Special Features (0 out of 5 stars)
For the 20th Anniversary Edition, you’d think you get some cool extras. There’s got to be a ton of vintage interviews at the very least out there that could have been included, but no all that’s on here is the theatrical trailer. How this happened is beyond me, since I’m pretty sure Joe Johnston, Billy Campbell, and probably the rest of them would have participated in preparing some new material or at least a commentary. This decision is even more mystifying since the last D23 Expo had a whole display of the original costumes to show off to eager fans. The home video division has completely dropped the ball on this one and they should be ashamed. Normally I would give one star for a trailer but since this is being marketed as an Anniversary Edition, which was deliberately done to invoke the hope of something special, I’m taking that star away.
Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)
As one of the best early comic-book adaptions of it’s time, The Rocketeer is a fun combination of Indiana Jones derring-do, Iron Man aerial acrobatics, and a Flash Gordon-esque hero. If you want to see the audition movie that won Joe Johnston his job directing Captain America, this is that movie. I really wish they had made some sequels to this since it would have been great to continue this series. Note to Disney: it’s not too late!!
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