Thursday, October 13, 2016
Why didn’t audiences flock to THE ROCKETEER? A lack of movie stars, perhaps, though topliners Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly share terrific romantic chemistry and main heavy Timothy Dalton was just coming off two James Bond films. Maybe it was the 1930s setting, which didn’t hurt Indiana Jones any, but THE PHANTOM and THE SHADOW later in the ‘90s didn’t do business either. I guess at this point it doesn’t matter why THE ROCKETEER didn’t strike a chord with 1991 audiences, except the movie’s failure meant we didn’t get to see further adventures of Cliff Secord and his magnificent rocket pack. And that’s a damn shame.
Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, who did a wonderful job bringing DC Comics’ The Flash to the small screen, wrote the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER, graduating to Disney from the low-budget tongue-in-cheek adventures they made for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, such as ZONE TROOPERS and the excellent TRANCERS. Stevens, of course, had his own inspirations for the Rocketeer, most notably the Commando Cody character seen in Republic serials like KING OF THE ROCKETMEN.
Stevens’ love for old movies, in addition to that of DeMeo, Bilson, and director Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER), is captured not just in the film’s story and setting, but also its characters. Dalton, dashingly portraying a Nazi spy named Neville Sinclair, captures more than a pinch of Errol Flynn, whereas the object of Sinclair’s affections, Connelly’s sweet and innocent Jenny Blake, is an unabashed tribute to pinup queen Betty Page.
Cliff Secord (Campbell), a hotshot young stunt pilot, and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin, who is delightful) discover a rocket pack in their hangar. Adding a leather jacket and a bullet-shaped helmet to the ensemble, Cliff first dons the jets to rescue a pilot (Eddie Jones) in trouble, which creates headlines about a mysterious flying man. Soon, Cliff and Peevy become hunted by the FBI, gangsters (led by Paul Sorvino), and Sinclair, who kidnaps Jenny to exchange for the one-of-a-kind rocket pack, which, by the way, was invented by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn)!
State-of-the-art visual effects by Industrial LIght and Magic combine with Johnston’s old-style direction and a star-making performance by the luminous Connelly, not to mention a zeppelin, for a fun tale of adventure and good-hearted derring-do. Bilson and DeMeo give the story some humor to leaven the suspense, but not of the campy or cheap slapstick kind.