Directed by Joe Johnston
After stumbling upon an experimental jet pack, young pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) must face off against gangsters and save his girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) from the clutches of evil Nazi spy and actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton).
What a great old fashion film. It is filled with classic hero and villain archetypes. Cliff is the idealistic young hero accompanied by loyal genius sidekick “Peevy” Peabody (Alan Arkin). Jenny is the spunky damsel in distress. And Neville Sinclair is the charming yet dangerous villain.
It is a bit of a throwback to the movies of the 40s and 50s with clear lines of good and evil. It harkens back to a filmmaking time when there were no shades of gray in the roles. The good guys were ultimately good, and the bad guys were ultimately evil. They could be simplistic films at times, but I think these days definite lines of right and wrong might not be bad to see.
Joe Johnston was the future director of the first Captain America. How more perfect could you get? Personally I liked that one better than the others that followed. He gets the era and was able to set the tone and look appropriately. There was no forced modernization here.
Billy Campbell conveys an “Awe, shucks!” vibe as Cliff Secord which is precisely what is needed here. You do not want somebody that’s world weary but rather a pure soul that is out to do the right thing and save the world. Jennifer Connelly as Jenny was the hurt woman but never too seriously entertained by the charms of Sinclair. Peevy is basically a crazy mad scientist in this movie. He is a mechanical genius and Cliff’s loyal friend and partner.
Timothy Dalton is always good. He is one of my favorite actors. Though I hven’t seen everything he has done, everything I have seen him in he has done an excellent job. He is great as a Nazi spy and a film actor. The character of Neville Sinclair is based on an erroneous story about Errol Flynn. Erroneous or not, the concept works. To my ear Timothy Dalton has a little trouble deciding what accent he is going for. Is it American or British or educated American? That is an issue many actors doing something other than their native accent have. It is the only issue I have with his performance.
I need to mention Tiny Ron Taylor as Lothar. In the comics and the film the character of Lothar is an homage to the late B-horror film actor and journalist (what a combo there) Rondo Hatton. He was never a big name but managed a small career playing thugs before Universal tried to make him a horror movie star during the last years of his life. He was known for the distinct features of his face. It was just an interesting tip of the hat to old Hollywood.
This movie has everything you would expect from a good action adventure film serial. Great visuals. Daring escapes. The most dastardly of villains. Exciting fights. This movie captured the feel of those serials. Speaking of film serials, the overall look of the Rocketeer character was inspired by Republic Pictures character Commando Cody. If you know the character, you will see it immediately.
At times it can feel like an old school spy film. They are fighting Nazis and there are enemy agents at every turn along with government agents and gangsters as well. That’s a combo that does not pop up anymore.
A few actors play real life actors and other figures in this movie. We get appearances by W.C. Fields and Clark Gable. Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes is the most prominent. They even manage a few references to the real world. My favorite is when after being captured by the feds, Cliff uses a model hanging from the hanger ceiling to escape. That is a model of a real-life plane known officially as the H-4 Hercules (nicknamed by critics the Spruce Goose). It only ever flew once and not very far.
At first I did not know that James Horner did the music for The Rocketeer. He was an amazing composer and could usually get it right for a particular film with his music. The music here conveys wonder and amazement and a grand scope as all his music for these types of movies does. He was a genuine a loss to film music.
In a twist akin to real life when the mobsters lead by Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) find out that Sinclair is a Nazi they turn on him. During WWII the US government was able to enlist the aid of organized crime at times because they were as against the Axis powers as we were.
This is a fun film that did not get the love it deserved when it came out. It not only embodies the spirit of the material which inspired the character but the character as well. You should give this classic a look.