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The Rocketeer (1991)
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin,Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn
Running Time: 1 h 48 m
TMM Score: 3.5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Nostalgic Tone, Story, Some Acting, Ending
WEAKNESSES: Billy Campbell
A young pilot finds a jetpack that allows him to be a masked hero.
The Rocketeer was one of my favorite childhood films. I couldn’t tell you how many times my brother and I waltzed through the doors of the local Video Master (Blockbuster would come later) and selected the Rocketeer as our weekend movie. As I grew older, my tastes changed and I forgot about the Rocketeer. Every once in a great while I’d find it mentioned somewhere, or I’d see a guy in a jetpack and think back fondly to this film, but I never had any real urge to go back to it… Sometimes, movies from our childhood are best remembered how they are, through that rosy-red filter of nostalgia. I was content to let “The Rocketeer” live in that hazy red filter indefinitely.
That is… until Red Letter Media did a review for this movie.
For those who don’t know, Red Letter Media is a group of guys out of Milwaukee that produces videos that review films- it’s a vlog about movies. They tend to take a far funnier approach than we do here at TMM. They are incredibly knowledgeable about bizarre and unique films, and a lot of times their videos lead me to great movies. (Here is a link to their review of this movie, should you want to watch it. Fair warning: they do tend to swear more than we do here at TMM, so if that offends you, you can probably steer clear of their videos.) Hearing Mike and Rich of RLM talk so lovingly about a film I hadn’t watched in two decades filled me with nostalgia, and I vowed to rewatch “The Rocketeer” to see if it lived up to my own memories and the RLM crew’s review. While I can’t say that I loved “The Rocketeer” nearly as much as the RLM crew, nor did it live up to my memory as a child, this movie is a ton of fun, and I’m certainly glad I took the time to revisit it.
“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi!”
After young pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) discovers a jetpack, he enlists the help of his mechanic friend Peevy (Alan Arkin, “Glengarry Glen Ross”) to figure out how the machine works. Meanwhile, Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly, “Phenomena”), a struggling actress, attracts the attention of famous movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, “Hot Fuzz”), whom, Jenny is unaware, has mysterious connections with mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino, “Goodfellas”). Also somehow wrapped up in all of this is the eccentric aviator Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn, “Ghosts of Mississippi”).
First and foremost, I love the tone of this film. This is a movie that pays homage to the serials of the 30-40s. Serial films (“Flash Gordon”) were continuing episodic storylines that pitted the hero of said film against a new baddie every episode (think of it as a pre-TV show TV show), oftentimes the plots were thrilling and farfetched, and they almost always ended with a cliffhanger so that the viewer would have to return to see the next episode. Films of this type have a very distinct feel to them, and their influence can still be felt in popular culture today. The character of Indiana Jones (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) is based heavily on early serials; so are “Dick Tracy” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”. These kinds of films have a gung-ho attitude that simply sweeps me up in the story, and that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude instantly makes me ready to forgive any logic flaws or farfetched moments because, hey, they’re paying homage to farfetched movies. There are a lot of moments in this movie that don’t make sense when you stop to think about it, but that’s not the point of the film, and I would never fault it for any of those logic flaws. It’s the reason I can watch the huge Deus Ex Machina at the end of this movie and shrug it off without a problem. Usually, a film with a Deus Ex Machina moment as large as this one would drive me absolutely crazy, but for this film, it fits the tone completely.
My biggest problem with this movie is Billy Campbell. He is far and away the least likeable character and the least charismatic person in the film, so I have no idea why they cast him as the lead. Quite literally every other actor in this movie is darned near perfect. Timothy Dalton is outstanding as the mustache-twirling villain. Alan Arkin is fantastic as the sidekick. Jennifer Connelly is absolutely wonderful as the love interest. So why did they cast a bland, emotionless actor as the lead when everyone else in the movie knocks it out of the park? I honestly don’t know. Campbell is so flat in this film that I almost gave this movie a 3/5 stars, but thankfully the rest of the film makes up for it enough for me to give it another half star.
While this might not be the most stimulating film in the world, it is fantastic escapist fun. If Billy Campbell could’ve infused a modicum of emotion into this role this movie would’ve been far better, but as it is, this there are still plenty of exciting chases and exhilarating fights. I didn’t love this as much as I did when I was a child, but I’m certainly glad I revisited this. If you haven’t seen it, I certainly think it’s worth a watch. If you like movies with this style, I highly recommend “Dick Tracy”, which, in my opinion, keeps the same nostalgic tone and produces a superior result.
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