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What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer
(1991)

(SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I may be being a bit harsh. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is sprightly and likeable, Jumanji over-CGI’d but moves along, and Jurassic Park III… has decent cinematography. But it’s The Rocketeer and Cap that tend to get singled out for praise, and I’m mystified why. The Rocketeer comes along – and to be fair, it shares less-than-hallowed company with the preceding Dick Tracy and subsequent The Shadow and The Phantom – as adaptions of or inspired by ’30s pulp/serials, yet having learned nothing from the energy, kineticism and palpable enthusiasm Spielberg brought to the similarly inspired-by Indiana Jones (and more specifically, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Johnston only ever creates a cardboard, facsimile world, one that feels like a Hollywood movie set, rather than remotely lived in or vitalised. This faux-period sentimentality is only emphasised by a horrifyingly inert James Horner “hero” score, evoking everything you should be avoiding about the ’30s/’40s (“the best John Williams never did’ is EXACTLY why it’s so awful). Johnston and comic book artist/creator Dave Stevens – The Rocketeer movie lacks an iota of his style – also pushed for Bill Campbell in the lead role of Cliff Secord against studio objections, and the choice only serves to emphasise the movie’s lack of character.

Disney were right to be nervous about the picture’s prospects. Their attempt to do a Batman, Dick Tracy, had floundered in its massive tie-in campaign, on the basis that youngsters didn’t care for Warren Beatty and his stolid star turn, and weren’t really that interested in Madge acting either (the latter factor crosses all age ranges, of course). It scraped $100m (in the US) despite itself. I no longer have issues to hand, but I well recall Premiere magazine’s annual summer predictions suggesting The Rocketeer would be one of the big hits – Dying Young would be the biggest, ouch – to the tune of $140m or so, along with Regarding Henry and The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (the latter did decent business, but nothing compared to Premiere’s tip). Johnston encountered problems with Disney, and said he never wanted to work with them again; the feeling may have been mutual.

The picture opens agreeably. Alan Arkin is immensely affable as Cliff’s mechanic pal Peevy Peabody, and the aerial sequences are decently shot (in particular, a Spielberg-esque moment where Cliff gets oil in his windshield and has to punch it out). Otherwise, though, the whole affair is so clean, so bland, so vanilla. Like Campbell himself (he’s also in the following year’s Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but you’ve quite understandably probably blanked him). It needed some Waldo Pepper-ing up. Or Raiders-ising.

When the Nazis eventually appear, there’s none of the ghoulish glee the Berg took in depicting them. They’re simply the costume department suiting up extras. Dalton has fun as Errol Flynn as a Nazi, (based on Charles Higham’s take on the actor), possibly the most in the picture apart from Jon Polito trying to persuade endangered crowds there’s nothing to be concerned about at the increasingly perilous air circus. It’s also a reminder that Dalton’s much better allowed villainous humour than suffering the straight-edged strain of 007. However, you never feel even he’s let off the leash the way he might have been (he’s much more enjoyable in the later Looney Tunes: Back in Action, riffing on his Bond to mirthful results).

There’s also Jennifer Connelly, graduating to lead love interest as Betty Page-inspired would-be starlet Jenny Blake. Ed Lauter as FBI. Paul Sorvino as a gangster who hates Nazis ("I may not make an honest buck, but I'm one-hundred-percent American"). William Sanderson, Margo Martindale and Clint Howard. Doubles for WC Fields and Clark Gable. Terry O’Quinn has fun in a couple of scenes as a retconned, peace-loving Howard Hughes, inventor of the rocket pack (Doc Savage claims this role in the comic book; perhaps a detour into Raiders-style arcana with Jack Parsons as its inventor would have added a much-needed frisson to the proceedings). Tiny Ron Taylor is wheeled on in some Dick Tracy makeup as Lothar. Unfortunately, he sticks out like a sore thumb, because Johnston has zero conception for the movie. Aside from Campbell, the cast is pretty peachy, but a visual stylist was needed to make The Rocketeer fly. Johnston is not that.

The Rocketeer’s flying effects are a mixed bag of green screen and harnesses. Johnston has a strong design element on his side in the helmet, but he never figures out a way to shoot his “hero” to make him cool, iconic; the poster does, of course. Ironically, Campbell criticised it as failing to lure in the kids. Disney too foolishly decided it was at fault for the movie fizzling, but if you build it, they will come. The picture struggled to open, nestling behind Dying Young in fourth place (in the top slots were Kevin Costner and Billy Crystal, in their second and third weeks respectively), crashing out of the Top Ten after a month. The summer generally being a bit of a bust was small consolation.

Nostalgia appeal for nostalgia appeal being what it is, though, along with the desire to milk any property with even a modicum of brand potential, Disney has been looking at sequelising (The Rocketeers – and yes, you guessed it, with a black female pilot as the lead). There was a computer-animated series on Disney Junior in 2019. Yeah, it slipped my notice too. I may be in the minority in my lack of enthusiasm for The Rocketeer, but I will say this: I wish I’d bought an original poster at the time. I’d proudly frame it, and hang it on the wall.


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