Nutshell: In 1938, ambitious flying ace Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and his trusty mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) are looking to make their mark in aerial races, only to find their hopes dashed with the crash landing of their finest plane. When the boys happen upon a hastily stashed rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), Cliff accepts the challenge, strapping on the machine and soaring into the sky, soon finding himself using the device to rescue friends and thrill spectators, hoping to keep his identity a secret, even from his dear love, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). On the hunt for the rocket are mobsters (Paul Sorvino), federal agents, Hughes, and dashing Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who’s lust for the machine unveils his true political and national allegiances.
Quick note: The screenshots for “Rocketeer” are lackluster, I know. Blame Disney, who’ve yet to issue a Blu-ray of the film. Heck, there’s not even a proper DVD release to pull from. Phooey.
1991: Throughout my time working at the five-plex, I grew to crave the front-line feeling of the weekend box office race. By selling tickets and sensing crowd reaction, it was easy to spot hits and bombs within this multiplex microcosm, understanding a picture’s fortune and glory long before the Monday box office listing (oh yeah, we had to wait until Monday or Tuesday to get those numbers two decades ago) confirmed the obvious. It was almost a rush at times, spending the early moments of a shift monitoring theaters, absorbing the vibe of the building, attempting to deduce the number one movie in America. Now box office totals are solidified on Friday afternoon, right after lunch. In 1991, we had the whole weekend to speculate.
Disney obviously believed they were in possession of a sure thing with “The Rocketeer,” a rare foray into the Spielberg/Lucas world of retro adventuring for the studio, who clearly patterned the picture off the effervescent Indiana Jones universe. Bringing Dave Stevens’s comic book adventure to the big screen was a no-brainer, with the artist serving up bold displays of superhero antics, gloriously shaped females, and sinister villains, packaged in serial form, with great attention to thrills and spills. How could this character not have his own movie?
The Mouse House went all out, spending a fortune to market the feature as a spellbinding summer diversion for the whole family. The striking Art Deco-inspired poster was out front and center the entire run of promotion, setting an irresistible retro tone, eschewing movie star faces to focus solely on the Rocketeer and his stylized way of flight. Disney even used a theme park to pimp the picture, blanketing the former Disney-MGM Studios with props and storefronts tied the film, some of which still stand to this day, though I’m positive 99% of tourists don’t have a clue what they’re looking at. Poor sunburned simps, faced with phenomenal reminders of moviemaking history and all they crave is a handshake from Mickey.
My memory from the film’s opening weekend is one of empty theaters. It played our biggest house and all weekend “The Rocketeer” died a slow, painful death. Matinees were a ghost town, though I take comfort in the fact that those who took the time to see the picture generally enjoyed it, openly asking the staff where the rest of the crowds had gone. It was a cruelty inflated to depression once I had a chance to visit the movie, falling immediately in love with its retro charm (e.g. glammy nightclubs, the Hollywoodland sign, and zeppelin attacks), cracking pace, and sock-em mentality. The James Horner score also heightened adoration, with the composer finding the perfect themey accompaniment to a wonderfully adventurous motion picture. I loved “The Rocketeer,” even as it was released on the heels of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” The summer of 1991 gave birth to two incredible action features, and we were only a few weeks in.
Oh, and there was this.
Gaga-gooey. You can’t put a 20-year-old Jennifer Connelly in front of a teenager. It’s illegal. Seeing Jenny Blake in a white satin dress was my moon landing, my bin Laden death, my cinnamon toast crunch. Yeah, yeah, yeah, something about a rocket. Now back to her!
It wasn’t long before the feature was demoted to a smaller house, though it was heartening to see a faint sense of word-of-mouth develop around the picture. Sadly, it was far too late to matter. “The Rocketeer” was hustled out of theaters in a hurry. No sequels, not much love, and no more Jenny Blake.
Box office gods, you got this one wrong.
2011: Now it’s easy to understand why “The Rocketeer” failed to ignite as a summer blockbuster. The poster, while stunning, was inappropriate, needing a human touch to help articulate the moviegoing experience. Only Disney and their virginal might would make a film with Connelly and not put her on the one sheet. It’s like a pizza ad that only touts a new box design. The marketing also skewed a little too young, using tried and true Disney tricks to create some conversation about the feature without hipping up the promotional push. It’s difficult to argue with the methods that turned “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” into a smash, but “The Rocketeer” needed a harder edge to reel the average moviegoer in. The same old Disney voiceover guy and kitten trailer beats stuck out like a sore thumb here. Clearly, something confused ticket buyers in 1991, or maybe the punch-drunk public just needed a breather before “Terminator 2” placed its boot on everyone’s throat.
All these years later, and I’ve sustained my love for this picture, a film that’s lost none of its appeal over the last two decades. In fact, director Joe Johnston’s movie is perhaps more valuable today than it was in 1991. There’s nothing ironic or gloomy about “The Rocketeer,” which rides a beam of sincerity that’s utterly enchanting, happily playing into the serial tone of the material with a broad, but neatly arranged superhero surprise that has a ball with set design (the Bulldog Café looks like greasy spoon heaven), costuming, and performance. The feature has fun with itself, and that sugary spirit is infectious, building a stirring origin event for Secord as he breaks in his wild method of transport and rescue.
“The Rocketeer” is a beautifully directed, high-flyin’ production, teeming with all sorts of classic Hollywood encounters and bizarre comic book touches (including Sinclair henchman Lothar, who looks like a leftover goon from “Dick Tracy”). Johnston keeps a firm grasp on momentum, corralling together various teams on the hunt for the rocket, creating a chase scenario that gives our hero something to do besides boogie with special effects. I’m fond of the lead performance from Campbell, who was an odd choice in 1991, yet captures the caveman-like appeal of Cliff, who’s a sweet guy, but not afraid to throw punches at a moment’s notice. Campbell’s handsome and personable, making a fitting impression while the supporting cast gnaws on their meatier roles. Especially Dalton, who’s pitch-perfect as an arrogant Errol Flynn-type, using his serpentine Hollywood ego to detect and seduce, charming his way to the ultimate goal, with Jenny a delightful complication.
As for Connelly, she’s so perfect in the damsel-in-distress role, so utterly pulse quickening as the girl next door, I’m surprised Disney didn’t erect a statue in her honor. Giving the dame role some pluck, Connelly is eye candy, but a tender presence here, permitting the film some audience-baiting insanity as Cliff has the gall to ignore the pressures of his ladylove to focus on his own insecurities. Marry her, you fool! A ravishing screen presence in all her apple-cheeked, cherry-lipped, heaving-bosom glory, Connelly is mesmerizing — a stupendous act of casting that elevates the room temperature of the picture, while giving younger audience members a friendly dose of PG sensuality. The chance to own a superfantastic rocket pack or the opportunity to engage in 10-minute-long game of footsie with this bombshell?
Yeah, I’d pick her too.
If there was one complaint to be made about “The Rocketeer,” I would have point out the distinct lack of confident rocketeering from Cliff. It was a disappointment in 1991 and remains unsatisfactory today: the film needed more action, more time with the flaming backpack. Watching Cliff grow accustomed to his machine is amusing, but the actual amount of hovering heroism is minuscule in the movie. The end promised sequels that were killed off by the lack of box office coin, leaving “The Rocketeer” one long set-up without a satisfying payoff. It hurts the heart to see the picture work itself up so wonderfully, only with nowhere to go. A true cinematic crime.
Still, we have this to provide comfort.