June 19, 1991
THE ROCKETEER has all the right ingredients for an aw schucks old timey circa-1938 super hero yarn. The hero, Cliff (Billy Campbell, FAT KID RULES THE WORLD), is a pilot for air shows – small time enough to be an underdog, but cool enough to strut around in his brown leather pilot’s jacket and clock a guy when necessary.
The setting is Los Angeles, so his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly, CREEPERS, LABYRINTH) is an aspiring ingenue, the villain is suave, swashbuckling “#3 box office star” Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, BRENDA STARR), and the experimental technology they’re fighting over was originated by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn, THE STEPFATHER). Also involved are mobsters (because Sinclair hired them), Nazis (because he is one), G-men (led by Ed Lauter, DEATH WISH 3, THE ARTIST) and a giant named Lothar (former Austrian basketball pro Tiny Ron Taylor [ROAD HOUSE, SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN] made up by Rick Baker to look like Rondo Hatton).
The random way Cliff becomes a jet-packing hero is pretty cool. During a test flight of the craft he and his mechanic/mentor Peevy (Alan Arkin, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN) have been working on for years, he flies over a chase between the mobsters and the FBI. The mobsters think he’s with the feds and turn their tommy guns on him! Some kind of mixup causes the gangsters to get away without the jetpack they stole from Howard Hughes, but Cliff accidentally finds where they stashed it.
He doesn’t intend to become a super hero, he just wants to fuck around with this thing until claimed by its rightful owner. I mean, it’s a jet pack! He and Peevy test it, and build a helmet for it, and then he’s forced to use it first to rescue a friend from an air show accident, then fight back against the mobsters trying to kill him (a misunderstanding causes the feds to be after him too, so he can’t just go to them).
Second-time director Joe Johnston (HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS) recaptured some of this tone 20 years later in his other best movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. But this being right before the CGI revolution it’s kind of a last gasp for old school Industrial Light and Magic fun. The flying sequences remind me of the speeder bike chase in RETURN OF THE JEDI (which Johnston was the art director for) – fast, carefully planned out to be full of twists and turns, highs and lows. You look and you know it’s not real, but not the digital type of not real we have now. The sequence where he flies around farmland barely in control is particularly great. Right when you think he’s done he introduces the concept of sitting in the back of a pickup truck in neutral to act as its rocket engine.
Paul Sorvino, the year after GOODFELLAS (not to mention DICK TRACY), plays mob boss Eddie Valentine, Sinclair’s hired muscle. A great example of the movie’s sense of fun is that Cliff escapes Valentine’s wrath simply by telling him that Sinclair is a secret Nazi. With that trademark Sorvino sincerity, you see outrage flash across his eyes and he declares that “I may be a criminal lunatic, but I’m an American criminal lunatic!” And all the sudden it’s gangsters firing tommy guns at Nazi goons.
Sinclair’s plan for America involves an army of flying Nazi rocketeers, a concept we see depicted in animation. Since it’s done in the form of a Nazi propaganda film I kept thinking about the poor Disney animator who had to draw a swastika flag waving in the wind. Sorry, bud. THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER already had enough people on staff. (Animation director Mark Dindal later directed CATS DON’T DANCE, THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE and CHICKEN LITTLE, all Nazi-free I believe.)
In a certain sense this could be seen as a right wing fantasy: a super rich guy sort of saves the day, and the movie industry is infiltrated by actual Nazis. (I’m talking about old fashioned conservatives having this fantasy, obviously, not Trump’s Republican party who are still against Hollywood but warmly welcome all Nazis, white supremacists, unfrozen Confederates, etc.) More generally it’s about American dreams: a tight-knit group of nice people working together, their ingenuity, bravery and loyalty to each other creating something new and great and also winning one for Good over Evil. Cliff’s best friend is an old man, he’s loved and protected by the regulars at the local diner (including waitress Margo Martindale). They all just want him to do good at the airplane flying nationals. And Jenny is in the trenches in Hollywood, an extra trying to get a line, a popular archetype from the era their evoking all the way through to last year’s LA LA LAND.
Cliff is a local-boy-made-good super hero. He has the sleek equipment that nations fight over, but he has to patch a bullet hole with a piece of gum (which also works as a self-destruct button). He’s the super hero you can brag you grow up with and truly say he hasn’t changed a bit.
THE ROCKETEER seems widely appealing to me, but of course it’s an example of that can’t-hit subgenre that I love: the old timey adventure hero like THE SHADOW, THE PHANTOM, JOHN CARTER or THE LONE RANGER. This one is more consistent than I remembered, putting it higher on that list for me.
Unlike those other ones, THE ROCKETEER was based on a modern comic book, started in the early ’80s by artist Dave Stevens, who had been a storyboard artist on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, as well as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the 3D GODZILLA film that Steve Miner almost made. In fact Miner was the first to option The Rocketeer back in 1983, when it could’ve been his followup to FRIDAY THE 13TH 3D. William Dear (HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS) was later attached as director at one point (he ended up with a story credit). The screenplay was by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who had done TRANCERS and ZONE TROOPERS.
Stevens first met Johnston in an ILM warehouse during the filming of STAR WARS. He went to apply for an advertising art job that he didn’t get, but got to stay and watch them work on the Death Star scenes. When it came time to do his own movie he was allowed to be on set throughout filming, provided voluminous reference materials to the designers and built a helmet to convince Michael Eisner not to change it from the comic book design (which might have killed the whole movie, honestly!)
They were signed on to do three films with Touchstone Pictures, but Jeffrey Katzenberg needed a live action hit and moved it over to Disney. This changed some of the content, particularly the wholesome Jenny replacing his original girlfriend, who had been based on pin-up queen Bettie Page.
According to this great interview with Stevens (which is the source of some of the facts mentioned in this review), it was softened in order to sell toys, a plan that did not come together. “When the film didn’t perform in the first couple of weeks like they’d anticipated it should, they lost faith in it,” Stevens said, “and just blew out all that merchandise to the Midwest. A lot of it was never even seen on the East or West coasts. It ended up in places like Pick ‘n’ Save and 99¢ stores.”
But to be fair, my research has found that some of the merchandise was not necessarily worthy of a price much higher than 99 cents. I’m not sure if this is an improvement over the turtle-shaped DICK TRACY figures or not.
That summer, the box office was dominated by TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES. THE ROCKETEER was a financial disappointment, not even becoming the highest grossing flight-related movie of the season (that would be HOT SHOTS!). Some blamed the beautiful art-deco movie poster by John Alvin, but that seems like some bullshit to me. BATMAN did pretty good with just a bat symbol, and I doubt anybody said “Ah fuck, I would’ve gone to see that if I knew Bill Campbell was in it!”
But decades later THE ROCKETEER does have a modest following, and it’s definitely a movie that holds up well. It seems to me like people talk about it more now than they talk about ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, the movie everybody went to instead.
I’m thrilled that for some reason a year ago Disney was talking about doing a new one with plural Rocketeers. I have a hunch if they pull the trigger on that one I will be able to cover it in a future series of summer movies that didn’t catch on, but I also think it could be alot of fun.