Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1991)

2. The Rocketeer

Thirty years ago, Hollywood got its first taste of the superhero craze that is currently dominating the box office. 1989's “Batman” was a phenomenon that broke records and packed in audiences all over the globe. Hollywood, as it usually does, took the wrong lessons from this success. Instead of immediately greenlighting films based on other beloved superheroes, film studios somehow decided specifically retro comic book heroes was what the kids of America were hungry for. Thus, an oddball wave of films that included “Dick Tracy,” “The Shadow,” and “The Phantom” flooded theaters. The best of this group was “The Rocketeer.” Not technically a retro property, as the character premiered in 1982, creator Dave Stevens had been trying to get his comic turned into a movie for years. After Disney scooped up the project, Joe Johnston, a huge fan of the “Rocketeer” comics, would step into the director's chair.

The time is 1938 and the place is Los Angeles. Howard Hughs has designed an experimental jet pack for the U.S. military. A group of gangsters steal the rocket pack. During a shoot-out with G-Men, the rocket is stashed in an airfield operated by Peevy Peabody and his best pilot, Cliff Secord. Discovering the rocket and immediately fascinated by it, Cliff ends up using the device to rescue a pilot from a stunt plane accident. This draws the attention of the gangsters, who are working on behalf of Hollywood-star-turned-Nazi-spy, Neville Sinclair. Cliff's girlfriend, an aspiring actress named Jenny, just happens to be working on Sinclair's new movie. Soon, the Rocketeer leaps into action to rescue the girl and stop the bad guys.

More than any of the other contemporary attempts to capture the art-deco spirit of Golden Age adventure serials, “The Rocketeer” does the best job of grabbing that sense of gee-shucks heroism. In Johnston's films, good guys are good because they operate with an innate selflessness, doing the right thing because it comes to them naturally. Upon discovering the rocket pack, it doesn't take Cliff long at all to use it to help people. The villains, meanwhile, are driven by self-interest and cynicism. That old school flavor of adventure, corny but utterly sincere, runs through the entire movie and powers every story decision it makes.

The film achieves this classic atmosphere by featuring many deliberate throwbacks to thirties and forties Hollywood. Many of these elements are carried over directly from Stevens' comic book. The Rocketeer, of course, is directly inspired by Republic serial hero Commando Cody. Cliff's girlfriend is visually patterned after Bettie Page. (This being a PG Disney movie, she isn't a pin-up model, like the real Page and her comic book counterpart were.) Neville Sinclair is based off Errol Flynn, and inspired by unfounded rumors Flynn was a Nazi. We see one of his swashbuckling adventure movies being filmed. A fittingly Fleischer-esque animation reel puts in an appearance. In a touch that especially tickled me, hideously deformed and physically intimidating henchman Lothar is directly patterned after Universal Monster star Rondo Hatton. All of this is in addition to in-universe walk-ons from W.C. Fields and Clark Gable. “The Rocketeer's” world is one of fedora clad G-Men, tommy gun-wielding gangsters, flighty dames and hot-shot reporters.

Tying the retro feeling together is some absolutely gorgeous production design. Firstly, the Rocketeer costume is taken directly from the comic book with few alterations. The iconic helmet looks especially fantastic when transferred to live action. The airborne hero is often set loose on elaborate sets. Clilff and Peevy's favorite hang-out is a diner located inside a statue of a bulldog. The nightclub that puts in an appearance is an art-deco wonder, prominently featuring a huge clam shell. The Hollywood sets and Nazi zeppelins are similar wonders to the eyes. “The Rocketeer” looks great, every aspect of the film directed towards that goal of recapturing the 1940s spirit of adventure.

Befitting of that approach, and the period setting, “The Rocketeer” is full of catchy and fast-paced dialogue. I especially like lines about stealing, the difference between lying and acting, the way the titular hero receives his name, or Jenny's reaction when Cliff tells her he's the Rocketeer. The best joke in the film is the way the gangsters react to learning they've been working for the Nazis. However, sometimes the film's sense of humor veers too much towards the corny. A sequence where Cliff uses the jet pack to push a pick-up truck along at super-speed is a bit too goofy for comfort. So are several brief moments during the Rocketeer's shoot-out in the nightclub. A jokey reference to the Spruce Moose is a little too much. In many ways, the movie's corny sense of humor is perfectly suited to it. Yet, at other times, the movie leaning on comedy makes its hero look incompetent.

Compared to modern superhero movie spectacle, “The Rocketeer” can't help but come off as hopelessly quint. However, it's action scenes are generally quite exciting. Early in the film, a shoot-out, car chase, and airplane stunt all combine into one thrilling sequence. Cliff's rescue of the stunt-pilot escalates nicely, growing more tense as it goes along. The fight scene atop the Nazi zeppelin is wonderfully orchestrated, the movie getting in some “Indiana Jones”-style Nazi blasting beforehand, the story going out on an especially exciting note. Joe Johnston's whiz-bang visual sensibility is most apparent during a fist fight in the diner, when the camera collides directly with a sternly thrown fist.

The action scenes are still sound but some of the film's special effects have aged better than others. The Rocketeer takes flight largely through model work and green screen shots. The seams show from time to time, the model work not blending perfectly with the elements around it. Other times, you can tell too readily the hero flying through the sky is a fancy dummy. All of this was cutting edge at the time and I'm sure Johnston, considering his effects background, made sure everything in the film looked as good as it could have. Perhaps only watching through modern sensibilities reveals the flaws.

Disney wanted an established star to play the Rocketeer. Many recognizable names, including some not-bad picks like Kurt Russell and Bill Paxton, were considered. Ultimately, Stevens and Johnston fought for relative unknown Billy Campbell. And they were absolutely right. Campbell not only has the look – the heroic chin, the dreamy eyes – but he perfectly nails Cliff Secord's personality. He has a boy-next-door sense of humor, a slight sense of mischief in his smile. Ultimately though, Campbell achieves the wholesomely heroic quality absolutely necessary to the character. So much of the film's success relies on his effervescent charm.

As good as Campbell is, the show is unquestionably stolen by Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair. Dalton turns his smoldering appeal around, playing an extremely likable and cool guy who just happens to be a totally self-interested and feckless villain. Dalton has the exact kind of grace and style required of the part, totally believable as a swashbuckling 1940s matinee icon. Yet he is also extremely smarmy, planting the root of duplicitous attitude. He sneers and smirks through all his dialogue, hitting the correct note each time, creating a delightfully hateable cinematic villain.

The film's supporting cast is full of notable names giving likable performances. Jennifer Connelly is astonishingly beautiful. Her raven hair, alabaster skin, and plunging neckline would not be out-of-place during the time period at all. More importantly, Conelly brings a lot of humor to the part, making Jenny as likable as she is lovely. Alan Arkin, as Peevy, is something between a mentor and a straight man, Arkin bring the required level of grumpiness to the part. Paul Sorvino is exceptionally well utilized as the head gangster, blustering his way through a role that requires an exactly Sorvino-esque level of bluster. Lastly, Terry O'Quinn does a good job playing one of the more benevolent cinematic depictions of Howard Hughes.

As a film directly concerned with flying, a soaring musical score was required. James Horner was happy to deliver. “The Rocketeer's” nostalgic roots is reflected in the simple piano melody that forms the basis of the main theme. From there, layers of sweeping strings grab a classical feeling of Americana. That's before we take off for the skies, the melody growing even bigger and more powerful, with more strings and horns propelling us – the viewers and the characters of the film – upward into a militaristic, action-adventure theme. It's the perfect music for this character and among the most underrated superhero movie scores.

Disney primed “The Rocketeer” to be a major blockbuster. The film's launch included the fast food tie-ins, video games, and merchandising you'd expect. (An example: My mom showed me a picture once of four-year-old-me wearing a “Rocketeer” t-shirt.)  Yet, like most of the attempts to replicate “Batman's” art deco comic book popularity, “The Rocketeer” would be a box office disappointment. The film was lost in a summer dominated by “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Terminator 2.” Yet “The Rocketeer's” good-natured charm and old fashion thrills would win it a faithful following on home video. Disney was even kicking around a reboot a few years back, though it's doubtful the studio has much room for a project like this amid all their other tentpole releases. Either way, the original “Rocketeer” holds up as a goofy but none-the-less totally effective popcorn flick. [Grade: B+]'

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