Joe Johnston | 104 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
Based on an ’80s-created superhero modelled on the matinee serials of the ’30s and ’40s, The Rocketeer sets its scene in 1938, when stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) winds up in possession of an experimental rocket pack. Initially donning it as part of the stunt show, when Cliff uses it to rescue another pilot he, a) attracts the attention of the hoods who originally stole it, and b) discovers his true calling as a hero, etc. Throw in a love interest (Jennifer Connelly) who’s a Hollywood extra with connections to the swashbuckling film star (Timothy Dalton) who’s really behind the theft, and you’ve got yourself an adventure!
After years stuck in development — including, variously, attempts to make it in black & white with an unknown cast (I guess someone realised that would never make money), having to persuade studios of the possibilities of a comic book movie (this being before Burton’s Batman, even), neutering the source material to make it kid-friendly (in the comic Connelly’s character was a Bettie Page-inspired nude model), and attempts to set it in the present day (until someone pointed out the success of Indiana Jones) — the version that finally emerged on screen is a bit of a mishmash.
The real problem is the first act. It drags and unbalances the film, which picks up considerably (though gradually) after the Rocketeer himself finally turns up. It would feel a much better film, and perhaps be better regarded, if it didn’t dilly-dally for so long before getting to the meat of the plot and action. It doesn’t help that it has ambition ahead of its era when it comes to special effects. The limitations of the time mean there’s not that much action of the hero actually flying, his raison d’être. He mostly jets around a room, along the ground, or via a handful of very brief green-screen shots that are mostly confined to one sequence. We all know effects alone do not make a good movie, but equally trying to make an effects-y movie when you can’t achieve said effects is a fool’s errand. Fortunately there’s some other derring-do to make up for it, and the climax atop a zeppelin isn’t at all bad.
Campbell is a nondescript lead, but there are some excellent scenes involving Jennifer Connelly and/or Timothy Dalton — in particular, the bit where he’s trying to seduce her and she keeps identifying the movies he’s stealing lines from. Connelly’s role certainly isn’t your standard “damsel in distress”, a plus side of that long development period, where it was noted they needed to strengthen her character. She very much holds her own, with a nice line in bashing people over the head. Elsewhere, Dalton’s Errol Flynn-inspired movie star is a great villain — well, us Brits always do that best, don’t we?
A lot of people seem to love The Rocketeer; I think it has a bit of a cult following, even. I wanted to like it that much, and as it goes on it plays more into such territory, but it wastes too much time early on and is somewhat hamstrung by the production limitations of its era.