Julien Neaves, Editor
When I read last week that there were plans to do a follow-up to period superhero film The Rocketeer I could not have been more surprised than if I had actually seen a man streak across the sky in a jetpack. Disney+ announced the new film will be titled The Return of the Rocketeer and Selma actor David Oyelowo is being circled to star.
I’m a big fan of the original film (what kid hasn’t dreamed of flying around with a rocket pack?) and I always wondered why it never got a sequel or an animated series. Well according to reports the film’s underperformance at the box office halted those plans. And there was a Disney Jr series featuring Kit Secord, the seven-year-old great granddaughter of the original Rocketeer Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell reprises his role), which ran for one season in 2019. But it’s, well, Disney Jr, and I would have preferred something more in the vein of Batman: The Animated Series.
Anywho, the news of the belated sequel felt like the prefect excuse for a retro review. And it was while researching the article I realised the film turned 30 on June 21. So a retro review is doubly in order!
With a rocket-fuelled SPOILER ALERT let’s revisit The Rocketeer in 4 Blasts:
Blast #1 Up in the Sky!
The film, which is based on the comic book superhero created by writer/artist Dave Stevens for Pacific Comics, is set in 1938 Los Angeles and tells the story of a down-on-his luck stunt pilot named Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell, then credited as “Bill”) who discovers a mysterious jetpack and is pursued by gangsters and Nazi agents. Campbell was a perfect choice for Cliff as he delivers the swagger and devil-may-care attitude of the character. Even better is veteran actor Alan Wolf Arkin (coolest middle name ever) who plays Cliff’s dry-witted mechanic Peevy. Arkin provides most of the laughs in the film as the mechanic has a snappy one liner for every occasion. The Cliff/Peevy relationship is the heart of the film and the duo are endlessly entertaining.
But what’s a superhero movie without a love interest? And this role is filled by the eternally gorgeous Jennifer Connelly as Cliff’s struggling actress girlfriend Jenny. The film plays up Connelly’s looks and there is one scene where she is ogled by Bob Leeman as W.C. Fields that is especially cringe-worthy. And we spend a lot of time seeing her under the sway of post-Bond Timothy Dalton as famous actor/Nazi spy Neville Sinclair (more on him in a sec). But the film does give her enough moments to assert herself and prove she is more than the typical damsel in distress. The scene where she tricks Sinclair that she has fallen for him and then knocks him out is particularly satisfying. Connelly and Campbell don’t spend that much time onscreen together but they have a decent enough chemistry. Future Lost star Terry O’Quinn also has a small role as real-life aviator and engineer Howard Hughes, who created the jetpack in-story, and he shows his class in his brief scenes.
Enough with the goodie-two-shoes. Let’s talk about the bad guys. I mentioned Dalton as Neville Sinclair and he acts as the film’s big bad. And the Bond actor seems to be having a blast with the flamboyant character, giving us a twisted, seedy version of Errol Flynn. Sinclair is quite the over-the-top actor and seamlessly transitions into over-the-top comic book villain. He’s a truly love-to-hate character and it is quite enjoyable when Cliff punches him in his smug mug.
We also have Paul Sorvino as gangster boss Eddie Valentine who continually clashes with the devious Sinclair. Eddie’s a bad guy but he has something of a code making him somewhat likeable. And while he and his gangsters joining with the cops to fight Nazis in the end is kinda corny it fits with the overall tone of the film. Rounding out our villains is Flynn’s gargantuan henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor), not to be confused with comic strip character Mandrake’s crime-fighting companion. And yeah, I wasn’t a big fan of the big guy. The prosthetics look goofy and quite fake and his robotic voice is just weird and not intimidating. But he does give a Cliff a major physical threat to deal with and he is effective in that respect, so it’s not so bad.
Blast #2 Sights and Sounds
As mentioned above the film is set in 1938 and features the fashion of the time. This is best exemplified in Connelly’s outfits which reflect 30s style and glam. We also get to see Dalton decked off as a swashbuckling character and Cliff’s Rocketeer costume looks great with that brown leather jacket and comic-accurate helmet, even if he does “look like a hood ornament”. Kudos to the costume department.
The special effects hold up relatively well overall. When Cliff is flying you can see that green screen distortion if you look carefully, but it is not so conspicuous to be distracting. And it is successfully integrated with some exciting practical effects and stunt work, including the thrilling mid-air rescue in the first act.
I don’t often mention music in my reviews (I’m more a visual, storytelling kind of guy) but it would be remiss of me not to mention the main theme by the legendary James Horner. It wonderfully captures the mystery, danger and excitement of old school adventure serials and never gets old. The sound editing is also pretty good and give the rocket blasts and explosions that necessary punch.
Blast #3 Mein Führer! I Can Fly!
The plot of The Rocketeer is pretty simple. Good guy has rocket pack, Nazis want rocket pack for Hitler’s planned rocket-propelled army. And director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, Captain America: The First Avenger) does keep up a light, energetic pace and a sense of whimsy punctuated by a couple of dark moments.
There is actually not a lot of action as far as superhero movies go, and the scene with Cliff as The Rocketeer in the club is played for laughs. I would have liked a bit more fisticuffs but that might just be me. We do get the cops and gangsters versus Nazis shoot out in the final act but it is over pretty quick.
The climactic final battle in the blimp was an effective set piece and gives each of the characters there little moments to shine. And watching Sinclair get blown to hell never gets old. Never. The denouement of Hughes gifting Cliff a new plane and Peevy checking out the schematics for the rocket pack that Jenny stole just SCREAMED sequel and makes it even sadder that we have not gotten one after three decades.
The original Rocketeer holds up well after all these years and is just a fun old time. And I am glad we are finally getting more of this very cool character. Even though I still want a new animated series geared for us older folks. Get working on that Disney+!
Editor Jules’s Score: 7.5 out of 10 ABC (already been chewed) globs of bubble gum
So are you a fan of The Rocketeer? What do you think about the sequel announcement? And you can check out more 90s superhero content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.