The Rocketeer


Directed by: Joe Johnston

RS: Not Rated Average User Rating: 3of 4 Stars

1991 Action

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The Rocketeer

608/09 7-11-91
In Hollywood, the true test of muscle comes at the box office. The smart money says summer '91 will be a face-off between Kevin Costner's Robin Hood and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator. But Bill Campbell's Rocketeer has a tankful of upstart moxie to take on those two Goliaths. Campbell, a TV actor (Dynasty, Crime Story) who's never done a film before, is a definite long shot. But he's got Disney's special-effects wizards fueling his engines, and they're in precision form.

Campbell plays Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot working the California air-show circuit in 1938. Cliff doesn't look like much at first. He chews his nails and worries that his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is hotter to get into movies than into his pants. Cliff needs a boost, and he finds it when he discovers a rocket pack that zaps him into space when he straps it on his back. It works even better when his mechanic buddy Peevy (Alan Arkin looking like Geppetto) designs a helmet that allows Cliff to steer instead of zooming into clouds and then crash-landing, as he does on his hilarious maiden voyage.

Cliff the nobody is suddenly the Rocketeer, a media hero who fights the good fight against gangsters, Nazis and the egomaniacal movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who is out to steal his girl and his rocket. "How do I look?" asks Cliff, preening for Peevy in his leather flying jacket and his sleek helmet, which enables him to keep his identity a secret. "Like a hood ornament," says Peevy. That line typifies the film's unflagging good humor. The Rocketeer is a full-throttle blast of thrills and fun. Of course, it's also a barefaced theft of every pulp adventure from Superman to Indiana Jones. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo have done more than raid Spielberg's Lost Ark; they've ransacked it. But Hollywood has been recycling the same cliffhanger plots for decades. It's how you do it that counts. And The Rocketeer does it with rare finesse.

It helps that director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), a former art director, has stayed true to the look of Dave Stevens's acclaimed Rocketeer comic books, which debuted in 1982. Production designer James Bissell (E.T.) and costume designer Marilyn Vance-Straker (The Untouchables) have wittily stylized the period, and cinematographer Hiro Narita (Never Cry Wolf) has captured every beautifully wrought detail. The South Seas Club, a deco Hollywood playground where Sinclair takes Jenny, is a perfect contrast to the Bulldog CafT, where Cliff and his pilot buddies hang out. And the action set pieces, including Cliff's flights and a climactic battle aboard an exploding zeppelin, are knockouts.

None of this would work, however, if the characters faded into the background. That they don't is a tribute to Johnston's easy rapport with the actors. Campbell and Connelly could have slid by on their Ken and Barbie looks. Instead, they play their underwritten roles with unexpected but welcome relish. Campbell has an appealing klutziness that wards off blandness. And Connelly, a child star (Labyrinth) turned bombshell (The Hot Spot), is equally spirited. Even when the camera plunges down her impressive cleavage (there are more dives here than in The Abyss), Connelly radiates the kind of intelligence that shows she's in on the joke. She and Campbell make a winning team.

Besides the sly and appealing Arkin, the vigorous supporting cast includes Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine, a killer who draws the line at helping the Nazis, and Terry O'Quinn as the prereclusive Howard Hughes, an aviation pioneer who wants Cliff to return the rocket pack (it's his invention) to aid the Allies.

Best of all is Dalton as the lecherous villain Sinclair. His character seems loosely based on Errol Flynn, the most famous movie Robin Hood until Kevin Costner. In a cheeky move, the film suggests -- like Charles Higham's controversial biography of Flynn -- that the actor was a Nazi collaborator. Whether that's true or not, Dalton turns the role into a high-camp hoot. An elegant if stiff James Bond, Dalton finally loosens up onscreen and steals every scene he's in. He's a swashbuckling Dr. Strangelove; German words like schnell keep infiltrating his British speech. And when accused of being a traitor by Cliff, he rallies in high disdain: "Who will they believe? You or the third biggest box-office star in America?"

Later, Cliff is shown an animated German propaganda film depicting an army of Nazi rocketeers dotting the skies and bent on destruction. It's a striking sequence, dark and disturbing in ways you'd expect from Tim Burton but certainly not from a Disney adventure. But then the film is awash in all kinds of surprises that are too juicy to reveal. The Rocketeer is more than one of the best films of the summer; it's the kind of movie magic that we don't see much anymore -- the kind that charms us, rather than bullying us, into suspending disbelief. One caveat: I still can't figure out how Cliff's rocket pack can send flames shooting down his back without incinerating his ass.

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