WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Adventurous but penniless racing pilot Cliff Secord has an opportunity thrust upon him when he finds a rocket pack hidden in his plane. With the help of mechanic friend Peevy, Cliff makes an immediate impact as the mysterious ‘Rocketeer’, but the original owners want their machine back; so, for some reason, does dashing actor Neville Sinclair, who is prepared to use Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny as leverage to get hold of the technology for his unpleasant backers.
Firstly, an apology that this will be but a partial review of Rocketeer. Not because I couldn’t be bothered to watch the whole thing, you understand; no, my VHS copy is in wretched pan-and-scan, which makes me grateful all over for the technological advances of the 21st Century. This means that I won’t be commenting much on framing or shot composition, though I’m not sure I would have had much to say in any event.
What I can say is that Rocketeer (Disney bizarrely lopped off the ‘The’ for British release), based on a graphic novel by Dave Stevens, harks back to the golden age of flying that took place just before World War II, and affectionately recreates the aircraft, atmosphere and art deco stylings of that time. Our hero is Clifford “Cliff” Secord (Bill Campbell), a good-looking, floppy-haired racer who struggles to make ends meet with his close friend and genius mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin). Matters are not improved when gunfire from a hectic car chase brings their precious racing plane crashing down to earth, but Cliff discovers that one of the chasees has hidden a package in the wreckage which turns out to be an experimental rocket pack made by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Cliff persuades Peevy to tinker with the machine to make it stable, and with the aim of making a quick buck the Rocketeer is born.
Cliff’s other pre-occupation is his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) and he’s not having much luck with her either, as he is less than helpful in advancing her fledgling career as an actress. His haphazard behaviour at the studios gets her sacked from a film but its handsome leading man, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), intervenes and both reinstates her and takes her out to dinner. Even whilst wining and dining, Sinclair has friends in low places, such as mobster Paul Sorvino and a hulking rubber-faced goon called Lothar (Tiny Ron); they are all mightily interested in getting hold of the rocket pack on Sinclair’s behalf, as are the G-men at the FBI. Cliff keeps flying out of their hands in a series of narrow escapes, but it’s only a matter of time before Sinclair shows his true colours (clue: red and white, with a black swastika in the middle) and takes Jenny hostage: can he rescue his girl whilst keeping the precious backpack out of the scheming hands of the Nazis?
Rocketeer, then, contains all the thrills and spills of the old Saturday morning serials: and even if it doesn’t quite match up to the modern daddy of action films, Raiders of the Lost Ark (what does?), Joe Johnston’s film does a pretty fine job, unfussily getting on with the hi-jinx without too much exposition. The Gee Bee racing planes are used perfectly to create a sense of atmosphere and time, and elements such as Neville Sinclair’s film set, the posh restaurant he takes Jenny to, the cars, guns and Cliff’s Rocketeer outfit are all strongly evocative of the 1930s. The Nazi subplot may well be a rip-off of Raiders, but a short animated section outlining their plans for the rockets meticulously recreates Third Reich propaganda of the time, whilst the special effects are not bad at all and combine with excellent stunt work to provide a good deal of excitement.
Actors are also well used, Dalton proving a splendidly hissable Errol Flynn-like villain and Arkin a suitably peevish companion. Jennifer Connelly plays the damsel in distress with a hint of defiance and an almost overpowering sense of sexuality, which is hardly her fault: the beautiful dress she wears for most of the film accentuates her best bits (let’s be honest, all of her) and the camera lingers to convince the audience that both Cliff and Sinclair could credibly lose their heads over her. If there is a weakness in the cast, it comes in Bill Campbell’s failure to invest Cliff with much personality; he’s perfectly adequate as the wholesome, slightly clumsy, well-meaning young flyer, but he lacks a swagger, or irascibility, or something that would make the part come to life.
Campbell’s blankness (which possibly explains Johnston’s leery pre-occupation with Connelly) is not the film’s only issue: in an otherwise realistic movie, the immobile rubber face of Lothar is jarring and cannot help but take you out of the picture. It’s an overly cartoonish touch in a film that is otherwise pleasingly direct about violence and murder, and Rocketeer would have been better without it; it could also surely have done without the hoodlums declaring themselves proud Americans against the Nazis, or Dalton slipping into a silly German accent, but these are minor quibbles in a film that for the most part brings old-fashioned excitement to the screen in a modern, accessible style. It’s not a film that appears on television much (unless it’s reserved to the Disney Channel), nor is it available (yet) on Blu-ray. I have a feeling that when a decent widescreen version does arrive, I’ll be tuning in to watch the third of the film that I’ve missed all these years.