Looking back at Rocketeer

News Duncan Bowles
26 Apr 2011 - 09:49

With Captain America arriving in cinemas soon, we take a look back at director Joe Johnston’s underrated 90s comic book adaptation, Rocketeer…

During a recent discussion with some of my fine geek chums, I was enthusing about my love of Joe Johnston’s work, and how much I’m looking forward to his take on Captain America. For Johnston, like Joe Dante, may only have a clutch of films to his name, but they’ve had a continued presence in my life since childhood, and are either beloved, or significant to me in some way – it’s quality, not quantity - with Rocketeer standing atop Johnston’s profile.

I’ll happily confess that, aside from the odd comic crossover in the past, or the more recent Marvel Zombies, I don’t think I’ve ever read a standalone Captain America comic, but that is only heightening my anticipation of the new Chris Evans starrer.

Aside from being a supporter of Evans and a huge comic book movie fan, I’m excited at the prospect of seeing another period-set, comic-based movie helmed by Johnston, one that is closest, thematically, to the brilliant Rocketeer, released in 1991.

Like so many films I champion, Rocketeer wasn’t the big box office success it deserved to be at the time (not helped by opening the same weekend as the little seen indie hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), and has since fallen into the underappreciated category. Thus, the chance to promote and enthuse about its charm and greatness seem all the more worthy.

It’s a film that can be wholeheartedly recommended to anyone, of any age, fulfilling its combination of action, thrills and romance with equal aplomb, while having the added benefit of using two of cinema’s greatest on screen foes – the Mob and the Nazis. For those of you left yearning after Indiana Jones’ recent Crystal Skull mediocrity, especially if it was one of your first forays into the contemporary matinee genre, then stick Rocketeer at the top of your list, as you’ll find no supernatural shenanigans or youthful sidekicks here.

I should warn those of you wanting an edge to your leading man that Bill Campbell’s performance as our hero, Cliff Secord, is a glorious throwback to an age of innocence – failing to communicate with his beautiful girlfriend, while throwing punches when insulted. Campbell exudes the perfect, all-American hero charisma with ease, making it all the more difficult to fathom how his prolific career hasn’t raised his cinematic profile higher in the years since.

Campbell apparently snagged the role by turning up to the audition with his hair cut to resemble that of Secord’s in the original comic, The Rocketeer, written by Dave Stevens in 1982, which was itself an homage to former decades, replete with its own Bettie Page, who Stevens apparently knew. The name of Page’s character in the film was changed to Jenny Blake, but one glimpse of Jennifer Connelly in the role and it’s not hard to see why she was cast.

Before she appeared in Rocketeer, I was only old enough to have seen Connelly as the somewhat youthful, whiny and unglamorous Sarah in Jim Henson’s magnificent Labyrinth, so it’s incredibly difficult to (tactfully) find the words to describe how much of an impact Connelly’s first scene in Rocketeer had on my teenage hormones.

Her sudden appearance as a woman made my jaw hit the floor, bringing about a shift in perception that was strong enough to bring tears to the eyes, and it’s a beauty that only seems to have flourished since.

But enough of such glassy eyed drooling, and back to more macho territory, and indeed, the film’s greatest asset: Timothy Dalton. Even by the early 90s, Dalton had already secured his place on my hero list, having played Prince Barin in Flash Gordon and, of course, James Bond in both Licence To Kill and the underappreciated, oft-maligned, but (for me) superb, The Living Daylights.

Rocketeer sees Dalton on fine villainous form, spitting out lines with the kind of relish that, more recently, Hot Fuzz also revelled in, while simultaneously reminding me how much I’d missed his presence in blockbusters.

In Rocketeer, Dalton plays the seething, deceptively sleazy character of Neville Sinclair, the ‘third biggest star in Hollywood’, who is currently filming a swashbuckling action movie, while sporting a rather fine pencil moustache. The Errol Flynn similarities are quite overt, but run a little deeper than surface appearances, with a once suspected rumour in Flynn’s life adding a little depth to Sinclair’s need to steal the missing rocket pack. There are also a handful of other playful references to the era, including passing appearances by the likes of Clark Gable and W. C. Fields.

The supporting cast is also populated by a host of familiar and talented faces, with Alan Arkin taking the lead, while Lost’s Terry O’Quinn, Blade Runner’s William Sanderson, The New Adventures Of Superman’s Eddie Jones and Jon “Shit on me!” Polito are all on show.

Elsewhere, the effects, which make up the film’s key set pieces, all hold up surprisingly well. The usual superimposition black lines and colour differentiation are fairly noticeable, but where Rocketeer triumphs is in keeping as many of the stunts shot live as possible, which when intercut with the odd effects shot, make for a strong combination.

I know that the CGI debate has been raging for years, but there’s a real sense of breathlessness when Cliff first straps on the rocket pack and attempts a rescue, as it’s quite apparent that a real stuntman is hanging (and subsequently falling) from a plane.

The biggest tragedy I find now is that, even when films make the effort to shoot live stunts, we all just assume it’s CGI. Maybe cinema descriptions should include a note to tell us as much: “Contains action, intense language and real stunts.” Production design also deserves a nod, with every period detail looking sumptuous amongst some fantastic locales, especially Sinclair’s apartment.

There simply haven’t been enough matinee idol-style movies made in the last few decades, with Indiana Jones, The Mummy, Flash Gordon, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, and even parts of Secondhand Lions proving to be a few of the successful embodiments of the genre that help to fulfil any cravings. While the need for a further fix might lead you down the drunken alleys of The Shadow and The Phantom, a place I’ll often frequent because, like Billy Zane, I’m not afraid to slam evil once in a while.

So with Joe Johnston being one of the few directors who successfully managed to bring an underused genre to the big screen (arguably twice, if you count Hidalgo – though my love for that will have to wait for another time), there’s every reason to look forward to Captain America, regardless of whether you’re a comic book fan or not. Either way, do check out Rocketeer at the very least, if you haven't already...

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