Published Mar 23, 2013When it was released in 1991, Disney thought they had a sure-fire franchise starter in The Rocketeer. Being a simple, patriotic period piece that tapped in to the public fascination with personal flight – an act of god-like power and independence that transcends the limitations of the individual – all the ingredients seemed to be accounted for. It had a generically handsome lead; a romance with an attractive leading lady (Jennifer Connelly) who wasn't just a damsel in distress; an adventure dependant on everyman heroics; top notch (for the time) special effects; a platter of distinct villains; and a supporting cast of accomplished character actors to ground the fantasy.
It was a recipe for American Dream stew that the whole family could gobble down without fear of choking on any gristly chunks of complex morality. Director Joe Johnston fought hard to cast unknown actor Billy Campbell (The Killing) as bright-eyed stunt pilot, Cliff Secord. Whether or not his lack of star power had anything to do with the film's underperformance at the box office, his brash nobility was a perfect fit for the role.
A relatable caricature of the 1930's ideal of a man as presented by the character's creator, comic writer Dave Stevens, Cliff is brave, cocky and uncomfortable expressing his feelings to his lady. As per the template, he's down on his luck—"the man" is sticking it to his independent business venture with mentor/engineer Peevy (Alan Arkin) after a shootout between the mob and the feds destroys their new stunt plane—before the opportunity to become something extraordinary comes along in the form of a prototype jetpack created by Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn, Lost). Inevitably, this helps build his confidence, having a unique characteristic to attract his main squeeze, who is drifting towards the seductive glamour of Hollywood.
There isn't much time spent on character development; the lethargic pacing is more concerned with a series of stunt pieces to show off the flight effects of a nascent steam punk hero. Smatterings of slapstick action and hypocritical chastisements of capitalism substitute for depth and self-awareness.
Events like a greedy show promoter convincing the audience that it's all part of the show when Cliff first straps on the jetpack to save an out of control stunt pilot puffs up the theme – elsewhere supported by the nefarious intentions of central villain Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a Nazi spy who's infiltrated American society as a famous actor – of showbiz types looking to make a buck regardless of the danger to the public, or its players.
Forcing thrills – anything that can blow up does – and emotions – James Horner certainly knows how manufacture inspiration with swelling string arrangements – The Rocketeer is designed specifically to recall "the good old days".
Its cheap appeals to sentimentality capture the spirit of the comics as well as the art design and hammy notion that criminal or cop, patriotic Americans can always come together for some Nazi killing.
If you're fine with flying your brain on autopilot, this dry run for the far superior Captain America is just harmless fun, but it takes more than a little chewing gum to patch up antiquated ideology presented without any satirical winking.
The Rocketeer screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Comic Book Heroes retrospective at 1pm on March 24th, 2013. (Buena Vista)