Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"The Rocketeer" (1991)

Starring Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Alan Arkin
Written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
Directed by Joe Johnston

Action!  Adventure!  Romance!  Nazi Spies!  Gangsters!  Oh my!

In 1991, Joe Johnston's "The Rocketeer" hit the screens, based on the 1980s comic book.  Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) is a hot-shot pilot with impulse control issues.  He and his friend "Peevy" Peabody (Alan Arkin) have finally bought and finished their dream plane, and are ready to hit the national flying competition.  But on their plane's maiden voyage, Cliff flies too close to a shootout between fleeing gangsters and FBI agents. 

Those gangsters have stolen an experimental piece of technology: The X-3 rocket pack, designed and built by the great Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn).  They hide the rocket in the seat of Cliff's old plane, and switch it for a vacuum cleaner.  But their escape doesn't work out as planned, and Cliff's maiden voyage is cut short by gunfire and a crash.  The gangster's car hits a fuel truck and explodes.  The feds think the rocket was destroyed in the explosion, but Cliff and Peevy find it in their plane.


Cliff and Peevy quickly formulate a plan to use the rocket to make money, since their dreams were shot when their plane went up in flames.  The next day at an air show, Cliff straps on the rocket and helmet that Peevy made for him when a pilot gets in trouble in the air.  The crowd is wowed by the stunning mid-air rescue, and the heroic "Rocketeer" makes all the headlines. 

While Cliff's life might be turning for the better, his girlfriend is one area where he can't seem to get ahead.  Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) is a struggling actress who is trying to land a role in a new movie starring the suave, dashing Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton).  When Cliff accidentally gets her fired, he tries to tell her about the rocket, but she won't listen.  Unfortunately, someone overhears: Sinclair.  Turns out, he's the one who hired the gangsters, led by Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), to steal the rocket.  Sinclair won't tell Valentine why he wants the rocket, but eventually it is revealed that Sinclair is actually a Nazi spy.

As the gangers, and the feds close in on the Rocketeer from both sides, Sinclair kidnaps Jenny and Cliff realizes he's the only one who can save her.  With help from Hughes, Cliff concocts a plan the save his girl, beat the bad guys and save America!

At only an hour and forty-five minutes, "The Rocketeer" moves at a brisk pace.   Car chases, gun fights and feats of aerial daring-do are the name of the game.  The cast is game, and clearly having fun.  Alan Arkin provides a lot of sarcasm to balance Campbell's good-natured enthusiasm.  Jennifer Connelly is a warm, lovely presence. 

Special props have to go to Timothy Dalton, who makes a wonderful villain.  Apparently modeled after an exaggerated Errol Flynn, Dalton's suave, womanizing Hollywood heavy is a ton of fun.  The fact that he ultimately turns out to be a Nazi spy allows him to have even more fun in the role, as the slick turns sinister.  Having later seen Dalton playing baddies in "Hot Fuzz" and the new season of "Chuck," it's great to go back and revisit this performance. 

For 1991, the special effects are decent, though they're not likely to wow too many modern audiences.  Flying effects have gotten a lot better in 20 years - just take a look at "Iron Man."  Still, the effects work is serviceable rather than laughable.  The action sequences are all fun to watch, and for a PG-rated film, things stay rather light.  People are put in danger almost constantly, but rarely do we see people taking gunshots (save for a lot of Nazi commandos at the climax).  There's healthy doses of humor injected into the proceedings as well, and some nifty, heroic imagery. 

I first saw "The Rocketeer" in theatres at the age of... shit, was I really only nine years old?  Time flies.  So does this movie.  It's not a deep character exploration.  What movie about a guy who finds a jetpack would be?  This is pure, Nazi-busting fun.