This is the third on my list of old movies to catch up on through Disney+, after Three Men and a Baby and Adventures in Babysitting, and so far it is undoubtedly the best. Both of those other films, both from 1987, feel dated and in the case of the latter this is hugely to its detriment. This movie though, made in 1991, feels timeless.
Actually that’s not quite true. It’s more that it feels like it is from a different time, harking back to the 30s when it is set, but it’s then modern sensibilities have had the effect of releasing it from a strong association with any decade, similar to something like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
As it is, The Rocketeer‘s relationship with Spielberg’s classic adventure doesn’t end there. Like the Indiana Jones films, The Rocketeer has evil Nazis trying to snatch a secret weapon that will grant them the power to overthrow the world and around this it also has a similar tone. This is no coincidence, The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston worked in Visual Effects on Star Wars and Raiders and Spielberg and Lucas’ distinct sense of action and adventure clearly rubbed off on him. It fuels a lot of the movies he has made over the years including Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and even The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and most obviously; this, Captain America: The First Avenger and unsurprisingly the two episodes of the Young Indiana Jones TV show he did.
Among these, it might even be The Rocketeer that captures the heart of old school action film making best. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were based on the old black and white adventure serials like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Secret of Treasure Island, Jungle Jim and Congo Bill but The Rocketeer is effectively a remake of one; King of the Rocket Men. (Although the most immediate source is an early 80s comic book that picked up on this same idea.)
Whatever it’s direct inspiration, from the second the James Horner’s sweeping score kicks in at the very start The Rocketeer all feels old fashioned in the most charming way and this never lets up. The story is quite simple; clean cut pilot finds rocket pack, bad guys come for rocket pack, bad guys kidnap pilot’s girlfriend to get rocket pack, clean cut pilot rescues girl and unmasks Nazi spy. This is to its credit though as it is very efficient with its narrative. I suspect a modern telling would have padded things out with largely superfluous heroics; saving people from burning buildings, chasing thieves and getting cats out of trees, as well as a long learning to fly montage. This sets everything up quickly though and jets off to its suddenly quite epic ending.
The film doesn’t patronise it’s audience with over explaining everything either. At no point does anyone utter the line ‘wow, it’s a rocket pack’ because it knows not to say what doesn’t need to be said and this is only one example of its tight scripting. To get every line you also need to be aware of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and the Valentines Day Massacre and that Hollywood was originally called Hollywoodland (which are all things I suspect have fallen from most people’s general knowledge in the last twenty nine years) but I love that it doesn’t feel the need to labour these things.
Bill Campbell is great in the lead and it is odd that he never quite capitalised on this in his subsequent career. Alan Arkin is wonderful as the genius engineer/father figure and Timothy Dalton hams it up as the villain in a way that he has since become synonymous with. Jennifer Connelly is strong as the hero’s love interest too. Stronger in fact than the same character would have been in the original old serials but typical of the way things were starting to go in cinema in the 90s. She does get kidnapped but she doesn’t just wait to get rescued and she is instrumental in saving the day at the end.
I’m not sure if I’ve seen The Rocketeer since it’s initial release but I really enjoyed it today and definitely recommend it as something to watch during those hours at home, either with children or without. As well as being on Disney+, The Rocketeer is available for rental on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Right, next I’m sticking with Joe Johnston and watching Honey I Shrunk the Kids.