The Rocketeer

1991, Movie, PG, 108 mins

Review

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Based on the popular graphic novel by Dave Stevens, THE ROCKETEER is a lavish fantasy on the theme of Los Angeles as typified by the movies of Hollywood's Golden Era.

The setting is Los Angeles in the late 1930s, a dream city where the movies are everything and everyone's in the movies. Young flyer Cliff (Bill Campbell) and his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), an aspiring actress working as an extra, are very much in love. But he's poor and so is she, so marriage seems an impossible dream. That is, until Cliff finds a mysterious rocket-powered backpack. He and his mentor, Peevy (Alan Arkin), experiment with the thing and when they've mastered its intricacies and designed a helmet to go with it, Cliff is transformed into the Rocketeer, a do-gooder with a gimmick.

Needless to say, a number of people are interested in the rocket pack. They include dreamy actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a silver-tongued heartthrob who's secretly a Nazi spy, and eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), who's working with the US government to keep the scientific marvel from falling into the hands of the Germans. Sinclair tries to seduce Jenny to get to Cliff; when that fails, he kidnaps her and threatens to kill her. Cliff prevails and the rocket pack is returned to Hughes, who in turn offers Cliff a job flying one of his new planes. Jenny and Cliff are reunited, and everything works out for the best.

The story that fuels The Rocketeer is slight and more than a little silly, a superhero tale whose hero is goofy and pretty limited in his powers--this guy's no Superman or Batman, for sure. But the graphic novel's atmosphere is rich, full of palm trees, art deco interiors and whimsical architecture like the Bulldog Cafe, a roadside eaterie shaped like--yes--a bulldog. It's also chock full of in-jokes for pop culture buffs, who know that Stevens' portrait of womanizing, traitorous Neville Sinclair draws closely on rumors surrounding Errol Flynn, and appreciate that Jenny was based on pin-up model Betty Page, famous for her cheeky bondage poses. Needless to say, Disney's THE ROCKETEER does business in a different kind of nostalgia.

It's hard to get a grip on who THE ROCKETEER's audience is intended to be. Directed by former visual effects ace Joe Johnston, who debuted with the surprise smash HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, THE ROCKETEER seems to have been aimed at kids, what with its RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-style Nazi villainy and golly- gee technology. But its loving evocation of Hollywood in its glamorous heyday means nothing to 12-year-olds, who expect major action from adventure films, something THE ROCKETEER fails to deliver. And they certainly won't get the joke when one of Sinclair's henchmen turns out to be the spitting image of unfortunate 40s actor Rondo Hatton (THE PEARL OF DEATH, HOUSE OF HORRORS), deformed by acromegaly and forced to play the role of monstrous heavy in a series of cheap pictures. Adults, on the other hand, who might have responded to the nostalgia angle, won't be enticed by THE ROCKETEER's cartoon-like advertising. And as for comic book fans, they're notoriously hard to please--just remember how negative they were about Tim Burton's mega-grossing BATMAN.

The movie version of THE ROCKETEER smooths out the graphic novel's edges, bleaches any hint of the racy (or even the slightly naughty) and hangs the result out to dry. The result is a movie that looks nice and moves along efficiently, but offers little reason for anyone to watch. (Violence.) leave a comment

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