The Rocketeer (1991)


Here’s another great example of a good idea handled badly by a major studio more interested in selling toys than selling a movie. Dick Tracy didn’t do as well as Disney’s upper management hoped, at least not on the merchandising front.  Michael Eisner’s mouse house – eager to make that up, and hopefully copy Warner Brothers success with the Batman franchise – bought license rights for this particularly independent comic book property because of its high-concept and oodles of nostalgia.

The Rocketeer is a deliberate homage to movie serials, pulp-novels, and comic books of the early-to-mid 20th century. Its steeped in cameos, in-jokes, and subtle references fans of its source material or time period (or both) will readily appreciate. Interestingly enough, Dick Tracy, which went out of its way to look like a comic book, could help but wind up feeling like a cheap, Disney-fied gangster movie. The Rocketeer, which goes out of its way to look like a big-budget movie (even if the budget wasn’t as big as it needed to be) feels more like a comic book done well.

Problem is, in order for a kid from 1991 to find The Rocketeer anything but slow, kitschy and boring, that kid had to have my parents…or the rough local equivalent. An adult figure kind enough to pass on their appreciation for the Golden Ages of cinema and Sci-Fi literature. You could say I was preconditioned to like this film, but does The Rocketeer hold up today…?

Apart from some composit shot issues...
Apart from some composite shot issues, of course…

It does! (Cue Hallelujah Chorus.) By doing a lot of very simple things correctly. So many that – with all due respect to Peter David and Sam Raimi – I’d go so far as to call it the Perfect Superhero Film. Not the “best” but the “most complete and of its type.” Specifically, it’s a Silver Age story set at the dawn of comic’s Golden Age: 1938.

Originally created in 1982 by Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer comics know what they are, know what they want to do, and do it well. For that alone they deserving a greater degree of fame than they currently enjoy. If nothing else, their 80s vision of late-30s American offers its own kind of nostalgia kick, now as then.

By 1991 marketing gurus were using Batman‘s success to justify equating “darkness” and “angst” with “what those crazy kids want in their superheros.” They forgot a market existed for stalwart heroes with good intentions, noble values, and a willingness to stand up and fight for them when the time came. Not because random bad guys killed his parents or uncle or wife, but because Obvious Bad Guys might kill other people’s parents or uncles or wives, and Our Hero happens upon the means and/or already possesses the will the stop them. Because it’s the right thing to do.

Next to his predicessors, this is a 8.5 on the "I Just Found a Jet-pack"-Face Scale.
Next to his predecessors (Gordon, Cody, Rogers), this really is a 8.5 on the “I Just Found a Jet-pack”-Face Scale.

This is not in anyway an “old fashioned” idea. It’s the idea at the heart modern heroism as our culture understands it and expresses it through the superhero archetype. It’s why I believe Cliff Secord deserves the title, even if every major comic book publisher today would reject his story for being too contrived or too simple or too whatever. (Though his Love Interest was a nude model in the original comics – they were indy, after all – so I imagine that would help its chances.)

Marvel, for one, might sue director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson for plagiarism. Like Peter Parker, Cliff Secord lucks into an amazing ability through several overlapping twists of fate. He initially tries to make money off his new found Something before circumstances align to threaten those he cares about. His new found ability gives him the remove this threat in person and, through doing so, he gains a new found degree of self-respect and appreciation for the good things in life.

It’s deceptively simple, but The Rocketeer is also an artifact of its time, with plenty of genre deconstruction and social commentary knocking around inside its narrative. Because this never becomes the narrative it slides past people rendered immune to  subtext by years of stupid, empty movies. It never becomes the narrative because Joe Johnston (was at the time) a director who (understood) the trick to doing superhero material. It’s not about originality. We’ve seen all this before and often seen it done poorly. It’s about execution. And not just the mob’s kind, either…though that helps move things along, in the best Gangster Movie tradition.

"...for the union makes us strong..."
“…for the union makes us strong…”

We know we’re in good hands as soon as the title disappears and the film’s literally opened up for us, it’s first shot framed by two guys pushing a hanger door out of the way. Like a comic book panel. Or the center-wipe of a Republic serial. As we follow a racing plane out of its hanger we meet former crop-duster, current stunt pilot and occasional race winner Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) who’s about to test-fly the plane he’s spent three years custom building for the upcoming, oft-talked about “nationals.”

These plans for the future literally crash and burn when a car chase between gangsters and FBI agents strays into Cliff’s airfield. We’re meant to think Cliff’s plane falls to stray gunfire, but repeat viewings reveal Cliff crashes because his father figure/mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) removed the Cliff’s lucky wad of gum from the the tail fin.

“That’s fresh paint, damnit!”

“You want me to crash?”

“Chewing gum ain’t gonna keep your butt up in the air.”

As if to say, "See? We told you. Los Angeles, 1938, biz-natch!"
As if to say, “See? We told you. Los Angeles, 1938, bee-yatch!”

The Rocketeer does this thing movies used to do: setting up plot points that, later on, pay off. Like the picture of Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) in Cliff’s cockpit, which we also meet before the credits end. I admire this film’s economy of motion. There’s no waste here and, like a tribe on the Great Planes, the film wastes nothing. As soon as the credits end we get a title card: “Los Angeles 1938.” Cut to: a gangster with a Tommy gun, hanging out the trunk of his getaway car, blasting the Feds with a Tommy Gun.

In eight minutes we get credits, a full set-up, and complete introduction to the hero’s entire supporting cast. We also see Our Hero, Cliff, go through an entire emotional spectrum, from elation at his successful maiden voyage, to desperation as the plane crashes, to anger over its burning wreckage. We see him keep his head in a crisis by successfully bringing the plane down. He shows off some sentiment by rescuing his lucky picture of his girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), from the cockpit. And he shows off some anger by punching one of the Federales, who (of course) take no responsibility for all the mayhem and shrug off Cliff’s concerns with, “Well, maybe you should get a real job.”

After cleaning up and getting stuck with the bill for all the damages, Cliff and Peevy discover what all the fuss was about secreted inside one of their old bi-plane’s cockpits. It seems the mob’s absconded with a jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) himself. Most of the film is structured around inter-cutting between Cliff and Peevy, who have “the rocket” and everyone else who’s out to get it, including a Nazi spy-turned-number three box office star in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who originally hired the mob (forgetting to tell them about the whole “Nazi spy” thing).

One day, men will look into those eyes and they will of them will be named "Bruce Banner."
One day, men will look into those eyes and they will drowned…one of them will be named “Bruce Banner.”

Plot-wise, that really is it, but The Rocketeer‘s packed with all these little touches of verisimilitude. I love how Jenny’s house mother is named Mrs. Pie Pye (Pat Crawford Brown). And how her first words to Cliff are,

“You know my rules: no gentlemen after 6 p.m.”

Cliff: “Well, I’m no gentleman.”

“You can say that again.”

Cliff and Jenny catch a lot of flack for being cardboard standies instead of characters because this movie lets them reveal character traits through their interactions. If this movie were made in 2011, Cliff would need to waste our time with some dramatic flashbacks, establishing the inevitable Daddy Issues all cinematic pilots must have in the post-Top Gun world (see also, Green Lantern…though, on second thought, don’t). Instead, we follow them through a typical date, ending in the typical move-date way, with her pissed him for being an idiot and not telling her about the plane crash.

The two work together because each is using the other to shore up their personality issues. She’s the All-Californian Girl, raised on an orange grove in the shadow of LA. She’s going after a career in Hollywood with stalwart practicality, building up a resume of shit parts, playing glorified set dressing. She’s longs for a Romantic image of Hollywood so much she went and hooked up with a walking example: Cliff . It’s no coincidence their one and only date in the film winds up at a Neville Sinclair movie, which Jenny convinces Cliff to see because Sinclair’s playing an Ace Pilot…the kind of Ace Pilot Cliff already is in real life.

Social Mortification: the Motion Picture
Social Mortification: the Motion Picture

But because he is living the journeyman life of a “flyer,” scrimping and penny-pinching to keep himself in spare parts and fuel, he can’t take his girl out anywhere but to the same old places. Insecurity constantly gnawing at him every time she talks about her successful Hollywood friends. If any major character flaw saves Cliff from Gary Stu-ism, it’s his fundamental misunderstanding of what Jenny wants/expects from him. He dreams of bringing home the bread for her as a nationally recognized flyer, knows that dream is farther off than ever before, and expresses his insecurity about this by verbally shitting on her professional aspirations.

I love that Cliff’s oafishness does not automatically end their relationship the first time it rears its ugly head. How, despite Neville Sinclair’s cozying up to her (after he overhears Cliff’s ill-timed and fumbling attempt to tell Jenny about The Rocket), asking her to dinner and dancing at the posh South Seas Club where she’s always longed to go, there’s never a hint that Jenny and Cliff’s relationship is in real danger. So when Cliff, disguised as a waiter, interrupts her dinner with Hollywood’s number three star, she’s more disappointed than annoyed, as if some small part of her were waiting for him to pull just such a stunt.

Of course, he only did it to warn her about the gangsters who stole her picture out of the hanger (when they couldn’t find The Rocket) and are now out to kidnap her to get to him. Then they have what’s arguably the film’s most famous exchange.

“Prepare yourself for a shock…I’m the Rocketeer.”

“The Rocke-who?”

“The Rocketeer, don’t you read the papers?”

“No, I’ve been working.”

Lot of blunt force trauma in this movie, too. Most courtesy Jennifer Connelly.
Lot of blunt force trauma in this movie, too. Most of it courtesy Jennifer Connelly.

In Hollywood. The Dream Factory where, in about twenty years, men very much like Neville will help make jet packs famous for a new generation of kids. Meanwhile, out in the “real” world, her boyfriend’s become famous for using his own jetpack to rescue a fellow air-stuntman. (“Extra! Extra! Man Flies Without Plane!”) Instead of fleeing the South Seas Club, Jenny sticks around to help her man out once gangsters start closing in on him.

Sure, this ensures her Inevitable Kidnapping, but even here she shines, using good ol’ fashioned Movie Geek powers (honed to a fine edge thanks to it being 1938, eons before you could look everything up in five seconds, when we Movie Geeks still had to rely on our Memory Palaces) to see through Neville’s “I’m just as much a victim as you are” act. Neville tries to butter her up with come-ons from his previous films and, with a growing level of amusement, Jenny nails each one down to the scene and the actress who originally heard them.

This kind of irony makes me think there are two protagonists in The Rocketeer, and it’s as much Jenny’s story as Cliff’s. Both learn that the fame and fortune they sought in their respective fields is either illusionary or unimportant next to what they have together. Through the act of realizing this, both act in concert to save the world…or, at the very least, prevent Hitler from fielding flying commandos. Cliff trips over himself into the role of his world’s first superhero. Jenny realizes that being a top box office drawn doesn’t mean shit when literally anybody can be that…even a Nazi spy.

Personally, I always liked the "Like a hood ornament" line the best.
Personally, I always liked the “Like a hood ornament” line the best.

There’s a lot of ways you could take this analysis from there. Everyone else hides their real selves behind their job titles and social conventions. Jenny’s an actress, looking to disguise herself for a living. Neville does just that on several levels, being an actor and a spy pretending to be an actor. (After all, the two professions are so alike…hey, you know what? Team America totally ripped this movie off.) The mob boss Neville hires to snatch The Rocket, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), pretends to be the respectable owner of the South Seas Club. The FBI agents pretend to be competent. Howard Hughes does a fine job pretending to be sane…if we chalk the whole “designing and building a jetpack” thing up to Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Everyone in the film is pretending to be something they’re not…except Cliff. So (in another ironic of course) he winds up wearing the mask and the costume…though it’s never referred to as such. It’s a helmet, built for functionality, ontop of his usual piloting clothes. And, in a very Marvel Comics moment, the media give Cliff his nome de garre. The Rocketeer is never an identity Cliff steps into: it’s a tool. And, if he’s any kind of pilot, he views every tool designed to aid human flight as an extension of himself.

As with most sci-fi MacGuffins, the Rocket’s only as good as the person wearing it. There’s never any doubt Cliff is anything other than the Best Possible Person in the World to’ve found it, and that’s gonna rub some people the wrong way. Nor is the outcome of all this ever really in question. The narrative is too deliberate, too classical, for existential navel gazing or Deep Commentary on the affairs of the day.

In all likelihood, this is the world's one and only kid-friendly, Disney-approved, Nazisploitation film.
In all likelihood, this is the world’s one and only kid-friendly, Disney-approved, Nazisploitation film.

Since either (or both) of these two things hobble even the best modern superhero films, I can’t but find The Rocketeer refreshing. I loved it as a kid and it’s even better today. Predictable without being boring. The script is too tight, the actors are too well-cast and Joe Johnston’s (was at this point) too good of a director to let the film glide. Like any good flying machine, its thousand moving parts all come together to achieve a technical miracle, and a personal favorite of mine to this day.

My hands want to detach themselves from my wrists and strangle me for typing this, but The Rocketeer really is……a film….for the…whole…uggh…family. Unless you’re the kind of person who found this movie “boring” because “nothing happens” and everyone in it is “boring” and/or “stupid.” If so, you are obviously a soulless zombie, incapable of human emotion and out to feast on my brains.


For those who made it this far, bask in your reward: WC Feild's POV.
For those who made it this far, bask in your reward. We all win.

19 thoughts on “The Rocketeer (1991)”

  1. It really is a movie for the whole family- my three year old boy likes it as much as I do. Add that to the sense of fun that it has, compared to almost every other superhero movie out there- no daddy issues, no serial killers, and who can’t get behind beating up Nazis? Another neat bit- Cliff never (that I can recall, anyway) uses a gun and doesn’t really hurt anyone. He saves people and flies around. The villains fail and perish because they underestimate him and take unfortunate actions themselves, not because Cliff beats them down. (Although Neville comes a little close, but I guess he shouldn’t have stolen the jetpack from Our Hero, should he?)

    And Jennifer Connelly… mmm… my love affair with her began here, became stronger with Career Opportunities (only worth watching for the pony ride) and has lived on through the years. Gorgeous is not a strong enough word.

    1. You’re right about the gun thing. He steals a Luger off a dead Nazi, but it goes over the side as soon as “that King Kong gentlemen” appears on top of the zeppelin. Gives Cliff’s extemporaneous approach to superheroics another opportunity to shine. Thick-headed and brazen though he might be, he wins all his battles – as you say – intellectually, out-smarting the idiots chasing after his jetpack by using its tactical advantage to complement his own wiliness. That’s one of the several little touches I couldn’t find the right place to mention directly, like the wonderful job Billy Campbell and his stunt doubles did illustrating Cliff’s steep learning curve. Over the course of the film he goes from the an awkward, fumbling neophyte Comando Cody wouldn’t have looked at twice to a Rocket-assisted hand-to-hand combatant. Something tells me Sam Raimi watched this movie several times in the ten years it took him to land Spider-Man.

  2. Great review. Rocketeer doesn’t grab me like Donner’s Superman films but it has much appeal. Also what is funny is how Disney wasn’t prudish about showing the swastika or mentioning Hitler in this film and yet 20 years later, Captain America barely wants to identify any of the Axis.

    1. My going theory at the moment is, No one wants to get caught selling Nazi action figures to kids with a $100 million dollar Big Dumb Summer Movie but so far no one’s backed me up on that. People tend to call it “political correctness,” but it’s got more to do with business than it’s ever had to do with politics. These days, sheltered idiots bitch and moan if they see swastikas even in a historical context. Bitchy, moaning people spread bad word of mouth, alienating target demographics. Hence: Hydra, last seen the David Hasslehoff TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.

      1. You know, I think you’re basically on to part of it-certainly fear of losing as much as a dollar is there…but part of it is, I think that there are probably a lot of very clueless people out there. I had to explain large parts of the history parts of Casablanca today.

        Nice review. I really need to revisit this sometime…I missed it until about 2005, then I watched it just once and liked it well enough, but not much more than that. My older brother was my Pulp Era seer, showing me serials, playing old radio shows for me and letting me swipe his Shadow and Doc Savage comics, among other vital educational input. I still can’t remember how we missed this one, though, or how I still have never seen the Alec Baldwin Shadow misfire.

      2. I do have to disagree on that theory since the swastika easily could have been omitted from children’s toys without complaints from parents. The other reason why I think it’s political correctness is because of the diverse team Captain America works with; It’s obvious the black and japanese guys were shoe horned in to appease the diversity nuts. This all rather stuck out as a sore thumb because it’s “Captain America”. He’s suppose to be pure, politically incorrect propaganda during World War II.

        1. Wait, what? Captain America…is politically incorrect? In what sense? Marvel generally goes out of their way to show him as an inclusive, fights for all Americans kind of guy. How is that politically incorrect?

            1. So let me get this straight: the filmmakers were PC because they whitewashed the Nazis and the Japanese (who aren’t even depicted in the film). But they’re also bad because they included an African American and a Japanese American on Cap’s Commando team. Never mind that, in real life, both groups were fighting in segregated units in Italy, where they’re depicted as meeting up with Cap when he frees them and others from a Hydra work camp? The more I type things like that out, the more I suspect the script writers probably wouldn’t have minded more explicit references to Nazis, work camps, and possibly even our own segregated military of the time, but the producers said ” no, stop, if you make this too complicated, no one is going to know what’s going on. Also, we’re afraid we’ll get complaints that we are selling kids Nazi action figures.” I’m with Mr. DeMoss, this is all about corporate greed, timidity, and not trusting the audience to be able to rub two brain cells together.

              1. I am not saying it was “bad” to include them but highly unrealistic.

                Also, I can’t see how one motivation could exclude the other to broaden the appeal of the film. Remember that this film was not only released domestically but worldwide. Europe is still far more sensitive about this era of history history than the US.

                1. You ever see the 1970s Euro-WWII movies, like Cross of Iron, the original Inglorious Bastards, or hell, the billions of high end films set during WWII? Last time I checked Europe was okay with having Nazis in a movie.

                  I have far less problem with a man who has been depicted in the comics for at least 50 years as being colorblind leading a desegregated commando unit into battle than I do with the whitewashing of the Nazis. Unrealistic? Maybe, but then so is everything else in the film. Also, I’d point out that many American films made during the war itself feature multinational and multiracial groups thrown together by fate that fight the Nazis. Two I can think of off hand are Bataan and Sahara. Yes, the depictions of African American and African individuals in these films are far from PC, but they are there, they fight, and they die heroically. As to the Japanese American, I would be surprised if anyone could come up with an example of a WWII film that featured a loyal, brave Japanese American, but that’s no reason to make a movie in 2011 with a similar attitude. We were making movies like Go For Broke! by 1951 and I don’t see any reason to regress to 1940s racial attitudes. Now SHOWING some of those attitudes and having Cap deal with it might be hard to fit into an already packed film, but I would say their omission is more forgivable than making the Red Skull into a generic super science mastermind with no racial agenda.

                  1. Well, it’s one thing to have a WWII drama but another to have family friendly film like Captain America.

                    I don’t mind unrealistic stuff in movies but I think if you want to establish a time period, I think should represent it the best way possible. Also, I am also not saying the film should have regressed into some sort of racial negativity but at least aknowledge there was some sort of tense racial atmosphere at least. I guess that was too much to ask from the suits.

                    Lastly as for that films Bataan and Sharhara, I am not speaking of collaboration with foriegn armies. I speak of the segragation within the US Army.

                    1. Actually, Bataan featured a reasonably dignified portrayal of an African American soldier who is one of the men fighting to the death to protect a bridge. The portrayal was so sympathetic that, in a sign of the times, the film was actually banned in parts of the South. I guess here is where I chant “Go USA!”? Depressing as that is, I agree that greater acknowledgement of the real situation would be nice.

          1. I see. However, this was Captain America in a 1960’s perspective and not from 1940’s. I am not saying I have a problem with an intergrated Captain America team but I felt that various measures were taken to make the film politically correct as possible. I still enjoyed the film regardless and Tommy Lee Jones made up for any shortcomings.

            1. It’s Jack Kirby’s Captain America that the movie was about. He created the character with Joe Simon in 1941 but they left the series after 10 issues. He and Stan Lee revived the character in Avengers #4 in 1964. Some stories of the revived Captain America were set in WW2 but mostly his adventures were set in modern day. He’s had almost 50 years of adventures post WW2. Given that, I was pretty pleased that the movie spent most of its time in the 40s.

              1. Well, I wish they were a bit more down to earth in depicting the 1940’s and WWII.

                And regardless of what the prime motivations were to sanitize the politics of WWII for this film, we can all agree this was the doing of the suits at Marvel.

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