Rewatch — The Rocketeer

Let’s heap some praise on a movie that has just never had its due.

I don’t always remember the experience around a movie release from my childhood. Many times I know I did see a film as a child, but it doesn’t carry a lot of specific memories. But I very much remember going to see The Rocketeer in 1991. I remember loving it. I remember seeing it multiple times later on home video. I remember the cups from Pizza Hut like this one. We totally had some of those! So when I saw yesterday that The Rocketeer was on sale in HD on iTunes for $9.99 I quickly bought and re-watched it.

If you haven’t seen this film, shame on you! But sadly you might be in the majority. Unfortunately from a revenue standpoint, The Rocketeer was a disappointment for Disney at the box office and we never got the two planned sequels. In some ways that’s probably just as well since sometimes sequels can ruin a film. But make no mistake: The Rocketeer is a phenomenal films that I can’t recommend highly enough.

It came about a decade before the superhero craze of the early 2000s, but at a time where period films based or inspired by pulp fiction properties were enjoying some success. The 80’s had given us the Indiana Jones films and Batman and the 1990’s would give us Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, and The Shadow.

The Rocketeer is set in Los Angeles in 1938 and tells the story of Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), an aviator who flies racing planes. Secord discovers a rocket pack which had been stolen from Howard Hughes. When a pilot loses control of his airplane at an airshow, Secord puts on the rocket pack and uses it to save the pilot. In the process “the Rocketeer” becomes a sensation in the press. Meanwhile, the FBI and a mysterious Hollywood actor (Timothy Dalton) are trying to hunt down and recapture the rocket pack. The last act is a phenomenal scene where FBI agents and 1930’s gangsters are teaming up in a shoot out with the Nazi’s while the Rocketeer has a fight on top of a Nazi Zeppelin. If that description doesn’t make you want to see this film, you need to check your pulse.

The cast in this film is really good. Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, and Timothy Dalton make up the main characters, but there’s a whole host of recognizable actors in smaller roles including Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn (John Locke from Lost), Ed Lauter, Jon Polito, Eddit Jones, and a great singing performance from a young Melora Hardin (Jan from The Office). It also feels like at least half this cast appeared in Star Trek at some point. Billy Campbell and Terry O’Quinn both guest starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation while Max Grodénchik and Tiny Ron had recurring roles on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It’s kinda crazy to me that Billy Campbell never made it big as a movie star. He’s fantastic in the lead role in The Rocketeer! You kinda wonder what could have been if this movie had been a big hit. Instead most of his on-screen credits since 1991 have been TV roles.

I also have to say something about Timothy Dalton. He doesn’t steal the movie, but he definitely chews up every scene he’s in. When this movie came out I only knew Dalton as James Bond, so it was very different seeing him as a villain. Since then I’ve seen him in lots of other things, and he’s usually a villain because he’s just so good at it. Here he gets to bounce from charming to menacing and he does it superbly while never taking himself too seriously.

The Rocketeer is the epitome of a fun movie. There’s action, adventure, romance and the film strikes just the right balance between seriousness and humor. The good guys are good guys, the bad guys are bad guys. The special effects actually hold up really well. Clearly this film owes a lot to Superman: The Movie and there’s a scene midway through where the Rocketeer flies alongside a passenger plane that is clearly an homage to Superman. Of course the compositing of that era was way more obvious than what you see today, but it’s not too distracting. The quality of the iTunes version was ok, but it looks like it could do with a remastering.

If you somehow haven’t seen The Rocketeer I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s a ton of fun, and mostly suitable for the whole family. Go watch it!

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