Movie Mondays: The Rocketeer
Title: The Rocketeer
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and William Dear (created by Dave Stevens)
Distributed By: Walt Disney Pictures
Starring: Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton
Release Date: June 21, 1991
Cliff (Bill Campbell) is a down and out flight ace during 1938, barely scraping by with his plane gigs. But when he and Peevy (Alan Arkin) discover a Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) stolen jet pack in their hanger, their luck just might turn around. However, when Cliff’s jet pack stint captures the attention of the mob and the FBI, their luck might be changing for the worse. And when villainous actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) goes to all lengths to get the jet pack, including kidnapping Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), it’s up to Cliff as “The Rocketeer” to save the day.
Every now and then there’s a diamond in the rough that gets overlooked in the box office. The Rocketeer is one of them. It was a great film during Disney’s prime and yet debuted at #4 in the box office (to be fair, it had City Slickers and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to compete with), and had its head barely above water.
The first thing that pulls you into the film from the start, is the soundtrack. I know I usually don’t talk too much about the soundtracks and scores, but the score here keeps you into the film. It has that sweeping, 90s Disney composition that doesn’t sound overly romanticized or too epic. Of course, I expected no less from James Horner, the man who did the scores of Braveheart and Titanic. It fits perfectly with the period, along with the nightclub songs performed by actress Melora Hardin.
The cinematography is also something that has a strong presence here. Some films like Dick Tracy will scream the time they’re in with bright, bold colors and dazzling displays. But here, it’s much more subdued. Everything is detailed perfectly and reflects the 30s without trying too hard.
If there’s one thing that The Rocketeer gets completely right, it’s the casting. Everyone’s terrific here and no one tries to one-up or make it about themselves rather than the role. Bill Campbell does a good job as Cliff, Alan Arkin (Peevy) does a great job as always, Timothy Dalton (Neville Sinclair) is a terrific villain, and Jennifer Connelly (Jenny) is quite the dame. Even the smaller roles such as Terry O’Quinn (a.k.a. John Locke) as Howard Hughes, or Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine are done justice.
The writing here is pretty strong, also. They threw in some twists and turns that threw me off guard, and had some sharp dialog here and there. They also captured the fun of the 30s and 40s serials without it getting in the way of the film; similar to the way the Indiana Jones series captured the 30s and 40s adventure films. And although I still have yet to read The Rocketeer comics, they seemed to have stayed pretty faithful to the comics from the plot overview and artwork.
To be honest, I don’t really have any major grievances with the film. Except that some of the green screens were terrible. They weren’t Megaforce terrible, but they were bad, even compared to other 90s films. I also wished there was just a little more action, although I’m glad they focused on the story and characters instead. But still, the flaws didn’t detract too much from the film’s quality.
The Rocketeer had everything a comic book film adaptation should have. It had a good story, stayed faithful to the source, and is entertaining even for non-comic book readers. Of course, there were films before such as Richard Donner’s Superman or Tim Burton’s Batman that did it very successfully. And there were films shortly afterwords that did it, such as Dick Tracy or The Crow. However, The Rocketeer seems to have been the first modern comic book film that was not based on a major superhero, but yet was very clearly a comic book film.
Which makes me wonder, what would’ve happened if The Rocketeer had been extremely successful? Would its success have done to the 90s what Blade and X-Men would’ve done to the 00s? Would it have created an alternative 90s where studios scrambled to buy and green light the hottest comic book properties? And combined with the 90s comic book sales and speculations and cartoon shows, led to a golden age where comics reigned supreme?
One can only guess. But at least what did happen, was that there was a truly underrated gem that came out of the 90s.
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