Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Little Luck

THE ROCKETEER opened on my birthday back in 1991 and as far as birthday movies go (this year it was WHATEVER WORKS, which I wholeheartedly enjoyed), I’ve always had a particular soft spot for it. Heavily promoted with a beautiful one-sheet and released against the Julia Roberts dud DYING YOUNG (which no one remembers), the film only did so-so business at best, putting a stop to whatever franchise Disney was hoping to get out of the concept. Still, I’m guessing it has its fans out there and I’m one of them. But much as I may like the film there’s something about it in the script, the production, the overall look, that always gave it a sort of close-but-no-cigar feeling for me, falling short of the mark it was trying to hit. But I get a lot of enjoyment out of it to this day so I have no problem in saying that I like it. Hell, I may as well flat out admit that I love it, problems and all. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it offers an overall feel of innocence that makes watching it even more wistful as time goes on.

Set in 1938 Los Angeles, the film opens on test pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) trying out the plane that he hopes will be his ticket to glory, when the flight is interrupted by a shoot out between the Feds and some mobsters who are trying to get away with a mysterious device. The plane is destroyed in the shootout, but Cliff and his trusty mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) later find what one of the mobsters hid when they were trying to make their getaway—a mysterious rocket device that Cliff quickly deduces is designed to be worn by the user in order to fly. The two agree to keep it under wraps, not even telling Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) but things change when Cliff realizes he has to use the rocket during a malfunction at the local air show. Now everyone wants to know the identity of the mysterious “Rocketeer” as he is quickly dubbed, especially the gangsters who are in cahoots with famed matinee idol Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who has his own reasons for wanting the rocket which he keeps to himself. As it turns out, Jenny is working as an extra on his latest film THE LAUGHING BANDIT and when he overhears Cliff talking to her Sinclair soon decides to use this to his advantage.

Directed by Joe Johnston, THE ROCKETEER was based on an acclaimed graphic novel by Dave Stevens (who sadly passed away in 2008), clearly inspired by both pulp novels and movie serials with a slightly more adult tone than the film it spawned—for one thing, in that format Cliff’s girlfriend, there named Betty, was very obviously meant to be Bettie Page. This was all toned down by Disney to make it more family friendly, though a few remnants of that approach survive in the final film (like a bit involving W.C. Fields admiring Connelly’s breasts—hey, I’m not complaining about the close-up we get but still…), giving it a slightly uneven tone throughout, as if there were agreements over what exactly the audience was going to be. The film is so genuinely exciting, fast-moving and flat-out fun that I always find myself wishing that it were as good as I want it to be. There’s something about the mostly-all-in-one-night storyline that has always made the plotting seem a little slight and while bringing Nazis into the mix shows that some of it is clearly inspired by INDIANA JONES (and, in its Hollywood setting, 1941 with one of the key gags coming right from that film) the staging at times feels lacking. This is particularly true during the South Seas sequence which cries out for some genuine flair in both the design of the place (sometimes the film feels like it wants the sort of budget DICK TRACY had) and also how it’s shot, particularly in how in the end it doesn’t really build to anything more than just the Rocketeer bursting in and aimlessly flying around the place for a while. While these flaws are never quite forgotten about, what the movie does have going for it is an innocent sense of old-time fun and an earnestness that makes the movie-movie nature endearing. Johnston doesn’t bring anything new and different to this type of film, but very little of what he does ever seems wrong. It’s very clear that he knows how to keep things likable and continually moving as well and it all holds together with the right spirit. Even the James Horner score, which sounds exactly like every other score Horner did before or since, has a feel of matinee excitement that just flat out works here. Something about this approach makes it feel like more of a relic now than it did then--the film was released just a few weeks before TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY happened, changing everything in the summer movie game forever and there is a sense that the approach THE ROCKETEER takes is still stuck back in the 80s.

The setting of a kind of fantasy version of Los Angeles & Hollywood of the 30s adds to the feel such as how the design of the Bulldog CafĂ© perfectly evokes that type of diner that can be seen in old photographs and such real locations such as Griffith Observatory that are used fit in perfectly. There’s also the Oddjob/Jaws-type henchman played by Tiny Ron, meant to be a dead ringer for BRUTE MAN Rondo Hatton, as well as the character of Neville Sinclair being based on Errol Flynn and certain allegations about his private life. There’s also the use of real-life figure Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) in a key role, making for a mixture of real and fanciful elements that gives everything an ideal pulp feel. Not to mention that it’s hard to dislike any film, particularly from Disney, that presents us with an animated Nazi propaganda film, detailing how they intend to conquer America. The portrayal of 1938 isn’t always accurate—the music being played when we see THE LAUGHING BANDIT being shot in particular has always really bugged me—but the film does succeed in portraying what we like to imagine as a more innocent time and that feeling is what I always take with me after seeing THE ROCKETEER.

This feeling extends to the cast. Bill Campbell became neither a success nor a pariah based on this film and he’s at least worked through the years. He’s likable enough here in a gee-whiz way that totally works for the role. Jennifer Connelly is an absolute vision, just terrific as Jenny Blake, making for a perfect damsel in distress although I freely admit that I’m more than a little biased when it comes to her--sometimes I think of 1991 Jennifer Connelly and weep (There’s a reason why I haven’t embarrassed myself by writing about CAREER OPPORTUNITES yet). The movie makes good use of the array of character actors who appear, especially Dalton who is a blast as the bad guy but there’s also Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Ed Lauter, Jon Polito, William Sanderson and O’Quinn who is particularly good in his few scenes as Howard Hughes. Melora Hardin, now and forever Jan Levinson on THE OFFICE, appears as the singer at the South Seas Club, with her renditions of “Begin the Beguine”and “When Your Lover Has Gone” turning up on the soundtrack album.

I put the disc into the player the other night almost on the spur of the moment and quickly found myself having a great time watching it again after not having seen it for a while, so it’s nice to know that it’s aging pretty well. It’s also much more successful at nailing this tone than other 90s attempts at this sort of thing like THE SHADOW and THE PHANTOM. The optimistic feeling THE ROCKETEER offers is still there, even if I’ve long since given up on ever winning the heart of Jennifer Connelly. And if the problems that were there on that birthday long ago are there as well, it remains extremely enjoyable, notable because these things seems to go for the bombast over the fun these days. Hell, even the zeppelin climax works pretty well on every level and how often does that happen anymore? THE ROCKETEER has its heart in the right place and the genuine sense of earnest fun that comes from it is still there. I’d love to see the New Beverly run it at midnight some Saturday in the future. If they want to wait for my next birthday, I’ll definitely make sure to be there.


cat said...

I have to say it here, Rocka-who? I fell in love with Billy Campbell back in 91, I have a thing for Campbell's after-all.

Unknown said...

"what the movie does have going for it is an innocent sense of old-time fun and an earnestness that makes the movie-movie nature endearing."

Well said! I have a real soft spot in my heart for this film as well and have been thinking about writing something about it one of these days. Your observations about its innocence and earnestness are right on the money. There is an old-timey idealism (that I also get from ED WOOD and MATINEE) which is very endearing in THE ROCKETEER.

I was a huge fan of the comic book and felt that they did a pretty good job capturing the spirit and look of it. Of course, it didn't hurt that Dave Stevens worked on the film as an adviser and was kept in the loop throughout the production which is why it is as faithful as it was.

It's really a shame that this film didn't take off like it did and it still baffles me to this day why it isn't more popular. But it certainly has its admirers and a small cult following, I'm sure. I know what you mean about it in relation to THE SHADOW and THE PHANTOM, both of which came out around the same time. While there are elements of both of those films that I like and I think work they aren't nearly as successful as THE ROCKETEER is and you did a great job of saying what that is.

And I certainly share your admiration of Jennifer Connelly. She was perfectly cast in this film and definitely looks the part as she did in MULHOLLAND FALLS, another period piece. And she has excellent chemistry with Bill Campbell (they were a couple in real life so that's probably why).

As you pointed out, the production design and costume design really go a long way in creating the mood and atmosphere of a bygone era. I just love watching this film and losing myself in the world that it creates. I also thought that the more recent SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, another flawed film, really nailed the vibe of that period as well.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane and a fantastic write-up on a wonderful gem of a film. Man, now I gotta watch this again!

Emily Blake said...

Why was I so certain that filmed starred Matt Modine?

Samuel Wilson said...

Another detail from the comics that didn't make it into the movie is the obvious though necessarily unspoken fact that the person whom everyone assumes to be Howard Hughes is actually Doc Savage. But that is admittedly an obscure point for a 1990s movie to make. The Rocketeer is a fun film all the same.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I agree - this movie isn't quite what I want it to be, but is fun never the less.

I particularly enjoyed the loving tribute to Rondo Hatton.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed with this film on opening day. It had its heart in the right place, but the action scenes never fly and Timothy Dalton reverts to one of the most cliched German accents since THEY SAVED HITLER'S BRAIN. Arkin is rather wasted as is Sanderson. A missed opp here.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Anybody who knows to say Rocka-who? is ok by me.


Glad you really liked the piece, though I do think you like it better than I do. But there is still something about it I respond to. I admit that I've never sat through all of SKY CAPTAIN--the look just kind of turns me off. In comparison, the love of the period that comes through in the approach THE ROCKETEER takes goes a long way for me.


Mathew Modine?? The movie would never have been as much fun with him in it.


Doc Savage was that figure in the comic? I really should read it. Gee, I kind of like it with Howard Hughes...


The Rondo Hatton character is a particularly nice touch, one of those things that gets me on the film's side every time I see it.


I'm sorry you don't like it, maybe give it another try some time. It's never been great but all things considered I think it's aged pretty well. You are right that Sanderson is wasted--if he has any actual dialogue, I can't remember it--but it's always nice to see him in something, which is probably why I mentioned him. He had a really good guest shot on LOST this past season.