ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘The Rocketeer’ (1991), Part Two
Chris Sims: Welcome back to ComicsAlliance vs. the ’90s and our review of 1991’s The Rocketeer! When we last left off, the daring Cliff Secord was about to jetpack his way across Los Angeles to save his girlfriend, Jenny, who was unknowingly in the clutches of the evil Timothy Dalton. Well. She knows she’s in his clutches, just not that they’re evil clutches.
Matt Wilson: She thought she was in the clutches of helpful, friendly, dashing Timothy Dalton. The Living Daylights Timothy Dalton. But it turns out he’s Licence to Kill Timothy Dalton.Chris: Which Timothy Dalton was the one that fought Grace Jones and Christopher Walken?
Matt: That was Roger Moore! Dalton got Robert Davi and Joe Don Baker.
Chris: Huh. Well, I think we can all agree that the clutches that once clutched Joe Don Baker are no place for a nice girl like Jennifer Connelly. But while Cliff is getting ready to rocket off to the rescue, Peevy notices that the rocket pack caught a bullet right in the fuel tank, which he patches up with Cliff’s lucky chewing gum. Good thing they solved that problem, I’m sure it won’t come back to bother them again!
Matt: Chewing gum is immovable, Chris. School desks have proven that. Cliff blasts off into the sky just as a begunned hand pops up to threaten Peevy. Oh no!
Chris: We’ll have to wait to find out who’s threatening Peevy, because now it’s time to watch Neville Sinclair work a tight seduction game on Jenny, which involves convincing her to dance even though there’s no music. That’s pretty advanced stuff.
Matt: When Sinclair says, “I hear music,” the score comes in real hot and heavy. I like James Horner’s music in this movie for the most part, but in certain scenes it can be a little overbearing.
Chris: Cliff arrives and decides to sneak in while dressed as a waiter, which involves him stealthing over to the laundry room and stealing a jacket to wear over his red leather Rocketeer jacket. We joked last week about how we’d never take that thing off, but man, he is really going for it.
Matt: The way the jacket kind of peeks through under his waiter outfit continues what I can only call the running gag of Cliff being pretty awful at hiding his identity and yet no one seeming to notice.
Chris: I think that’s the one thing that Joe Johnston really tries to do “comic booky,” you know? He gives Cliff an assigned outfit that he never gets to be entirely out of. It’s a pretty fun visual.
Matt: Jenny and Sinclair finish up their dance and the band (the singer looks a whole lot like Jan from The Office, by the way) starts up a sad song, which leads Jenny to look a tad forlorn for a second. Sinclair seizes on the opportunity to ask Jenny about Cliff, who met her on her family’s farm when he used to dust it. Before they can get too deep into it, though Cliff arrives with a note in a soup bowl. Stealthy!
Chris: Jenny is understandably cheesed, but doesn’t blow Cliff’s cover and meets him by “the big fish,” where he romantically pulls her into a nearby shrub so that they can have a heated exchange about jealousy.
Matt: Cliff tells her the goons who killed Bigelow are looking for her and confesses that he’s the Rocketeer, to which she replies, “The Rock-a-who?” Guess she doesn’t read the papers.
Chris: Cliff manages to say something sweet enough that Jenny believes him, but unfortunately, Sinclair finds the note in her soup. This is why food-based warnings are so rarely effective.
Matt: At least when the food is somewhat transparent. Jenny heads outside to grab a taxi just as Lothar stomps into the club, and man, you just have to love how cartoony this character is.
Chris: And the cartoony situations he creates! There was the insanely huge gunfight back at Peevy’s house, and now there’s a chase scene through a crowded dance floor. It’s one of the best moments in the film when Cliff, hunched over and running, shouts “cutting in!” and grabs a lady to use as cover as he dances her across the floor to the stairs. It’s almost a Marx Brothers bit.
Chris: He even says “thank you” when he shoves her back towards his partner.
Matt: Cliff grabs his rocket out of the laundry room and goes blasting through a laundry chute, causing havoc throughout the club. I can only imagine the headlines the next day. “Rocketeer Crashes Club; Somehow No One Viciously Burned to Death.”
Chris: This movie is not short on its sight gags, is it? The Rocketeer blasting through the club on a runaway dessert cart might be the silliest thing we’ve ever been called upon to watch for this job. Until he ends up straddling an ice sculpture of a snail, and riding it around the dining room, I mean.
Matt: After that, he uses his rockets to knock over a hulking, human cartoon character which then Jennifer Connelly hits over the head with an easily-broken sculpture. This is a Disney movie, but boy if it doesn’t have a Looney Tunes feel.
Chris: It certainly has that cartoon-for-kids thing going on, except for that part where Jenny gets chloroformed by Timothy Dalton and abducted to his sex blimp.
Matt: Michael Kupperman has warned us about these.
Chris: Okay, so technically he takes her to his house first, but the zeppelin is on the way, believe us. For now, Dalton is still trying to work his proto-pickup artist game, trying to convince Jenny that he’s actually being blackmailed by the gangsters and telling her that when they danced “I felt something move inside me.”
Matt: Jenny, being a huge fan of his, notices that line is the same one he said to Greta Garbo in one of his movies. And yet he still tries to play that off, like, “Oh, but you’d play that role better!”
Chris: He keeps doing it, too, and she keeps calling him out on it! It’s a pretty great scene; Sinclair is a gloriously sleazy dude and Dalton seems like he’s having a pretty good time with the material.
Matt: Eventually he starts to simply try to silence her with clothes, then with kisses. Before he can go in for the big smooch, Jenny asks if he’d like her to try one of the dresses on. He says of course, and she goes into the dressing room. She asks him for help, and enticed by the prospect of Jennifer Connelly nudity, he obliges so she can bash him over the head with a vase. Jenny really has a knack for hitting guys over the head with breakables.
Chris: The best bit about this entire scene is that when she asks if he can come in and help her out of her dress, he is there immediately. Like, hands already on the doorknobs before she was finished asking. Literal doorknobs, I mean. Get your minds out of the gutter.
Matt: Jenny sneaks out of the room to find Lothar standing guard downstairs. She breaks back to the hallway and comes to the library, where she finds a secret room. Not only are the plans for the jetpack in there, but also a radio with a mysteriously accented man on the other end and a book with a pretty unmysterious symbol on it.
Chris: Everything about this section of the film is amazing, and Neville Sinclair’s Secret Nazi Room is no exception. Just as Jenny is reeling from the sight of the swastika and saying “Neville Sinclair is a -” the panel slides open and Timothy Dalton, standing there with an icepack on his head, finishes the thought with “Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? ALL OF THE ABOVE!”
Chris: It’s f**king fantastic.
Matt: At least the guy knows who he is.
Chris: Throw in the big “BUM-BA-BA-BUMMM!” soundtrack and it’s seriously one of my favorite things. I’m cracking up watching it again right now.
Matt: Cliff returns to the diner to find it basically abandoned except for the little girl from earlier. That’s when he gets a phone call from Valentine letting him know they’ve got Jenny, and he’s got to give them the rocket to get her back. Valentine is just the most uninquisitive gangster on the planet. Don’t you think he would have picked on some Nazi clues by now?
Chris: At that point, the FBI busts in, because Cliff literally only goes to three places. All they had to do was wait. They haul Cliff in to talk to Howard Hughes, and it turns out that Peevy’s there chit-chatting about bypassing fuel lines. You know, you’d think that dude wouldn’t have taken eight years to get off that island if he could build a jetpack, fuel line problems or no.
Matt: Howard Hughes didn’t actually enter his body until season four, though. Hughes shows Cliff and Peevy about the real U.S./German weapons race of the era: Forget about A-bombs. Jetpacks are the true threat!
Chris: We get a little filmstrip about the Nazis testing out their jetpacks, which involves a Nazi exploding and is therefore the height of slapstick comedy, but then, we get one of the undeniable high points of the movie: a “Nazi propaganda film” of the jetpack-waffe flying into America and conquering it, animated in the style of a Fleischer Superman cartoon.
Matt: It’s a pitch-perfect recreation of the propaganda films of that era, with arrows coming out of a Nazi symbol and burning flags and stuff. So well done.
Chris: There’s a bit where the American eagle is melted down and reformed into a Nazi eagle that’s super well-done, and Billy Campbell’s dumbstruck reaction is pretty perfect. Still, he has a Jennifer Connelly to save, and keeps refusing to turn the rocket back over to the G-Men.
Matt: When they get too forceful, Cliff bursts through the window of Hughes’ office and glides out of the hangar on a model plane. Hughes insists the G-men hold their fire and even seems to have some admiration for Cliff’s style.
Chris: If this movie had gotten the sequels they’d originally planned, I imagine Terry O’Quinn’s Hughes and Alan Arkin’s Peevy would’ve teamed up to be Cliff’s gadget men. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see that; the little screen time they have together hints at some good stuff.
Matt: They do work well together. Sinclair, Valentine and The Rocketeer all meet up at the observatory, where a pretty tense standoff transpires. Cliff finally wins the upper hand by cluing old dumb Valentine in to the fact that he’s been working for a Ratzi. He may be a scoundrel, but he’s a patriotic scoundrel!
Chris: It’s pretty great that Sinclair, the Hollywood actor, wants to have this big moment at the Griffith Park Observatory, but yeah, Valentine’s loyalties are a little weird, but perfectly in keeping with the cartoonish aspect of the rest of the movie. His grumbling desire to just be done with all this rocket nonsense is a nice touch, too.
Matt: “I’ve got a club to repair and an ulcer to plug,” says the put-upon gangster.
Chris: He’s like a sitcom character who wandered into an action movie. Unfortunately, his patriotism only counts for so much when Sinclair summons a bunch of Nazi commandos from out of nowhere, because of course he does. And then, at long last… the sex blimp arrives.
Matt: And shortly after that, the FBI, just in case the gathering wasn’t quite big enough. Cliff goes scooting away with this weird maneuver where he’s using the now-unstrapped rocket but on the ground, taking one of the Nazi soldiers with him. A gigantic firefight breaks out in which one of the G-Men reminds everyone that hitting the blimp would mean curtains for them all, and none of it really matters because Sinclair gets Jenny onto the blimp anyway.
Chris: I love how this bit of the movie just keeps getting bigger and bigger. First it’s Cliff surrounded by Sinclair’s guys, then Sinclair surrounded by the gangsters, then the gangster surrounded by the Nazis, then the Nazis surrounded by the feds! It all builds to this bit where Valentine and the lead G-Man are both firing Tommy guns at the Nazis, and Valentine just looks over at him and smiles. So great.
Matt: Yeah, they just have this little moment where they acknowledge how weird it is for them to be working together, then just shrug it off.
Chris: Listen: Everyone hates Nazis. While that battle rages on the ground, Cliff takes to the air for a little more bad ’90s green screen as he flies up to the zeppelin.
Matt: There’s a shot of The Rocketeer in front of the American flag that probably got Johnston the Captain America job by itself, though. Isn’t it lucky that the Nazi The Rocketeer is fighting here has a thing for zeppelins instead of other Nazi vehicles, like, say, U-boats?
Chris: Apparently there was a draft of the script where the climax involved a submarine, but thankfully they realized that it was really dumb to not use a zeppelin when your movie is about a guy who can fly around on a jetpack. Seriously.
Matt: Good call on their part. Cliff makes his way up to the blimp and seizes up the rudder, causing a lot of angry German yelling between Sinclair and the other Nazi guys. Cliff makes his way toward the entrance when out pops our old pal Lothar.
Chris: Lothar by himself is great. Lothar vs. a guy with a jetpack in a fight scene that takes place on top of a zeppelin? How was this not the biggest movie of the ye – oh it was up against Terminator 2? Yeah, that makes sense.
Matt: You do have to wonder: Why does Lothar really need a wrench here? He’s a monster. I’d think he could pound Cliff with some body blows to the same effect. Also: How did he think his hat would stay on out there?
Chris: Lothar’s hat is yet another one of this movie’s 90 or so running gags. He knocks Cliff off the zeppelin, only to have Cliff remember that he is wearing a jetpack and fly around the other side to knock him for a loop – which also takes out “the best pilot in Germany.”
Matt: Lothar’s still tethered to the zeppelin, though and the backup pilot notices the altitude is dropping fast. They’ve got to drop some weight. The Nazi who looks like an emaciated Major Toht from Raiders suggests the actor, so Sinclair shoots him and he falls out the window.
Chris: Sinclair is jolly well done f**king around at this point. He holds his gun on Jenny until Cliff slides the jetpack across the floor to him, then hands off Jenny Duty to the captain, who gets stomped on the foot and booted out the door for his trouble.
Matt: His accent is all over the place at this point. Is he German now? English still? Is his accent just Generic Movie Villain? It’s hitting all kinds of different notes.
Chris: I know we hit Bloodrayne pretty hard on this point, but I kind of like that Sinclair’s accent is wholly dependent on what he’s saying and to whom he’s saying it. His “For ze Fazherland!” to the Zeppelin captain just strikes me as hilarious. Also, I think we are safe in saying this movie is way better than Bloodrayne.
Matt: Yes, very safe, though it didn’t make a ton more money. When Cliff slides the jetpack over to Sinclair, we should note, he pulls off the gum Peevy put on there. It’s Chekov’s gum.
Matt: Cliff and Sinclair fight for a while, with some banter about Sinclair’s stunt man and him doing his own stunts but Jenny brings that all to an end by shooting a flare gun inside a giant hydrogen balloon.
Chris: It is not her finest moment. The fire provides Jenny and Cliff with enough of a distraction that Sinclair grabs the jetpack, and after one last bon mot – “It wasn’t lies. It was acting.” – he flies off. And then he explodes in one of the worst effects we’ve seen thus far.
Matt: Not only does he explode, but he falls in a giant fireball into the former “LAND” suffix on the HOLLYWOOD sign, explaining why those letters aren’t there anymore. That’s…maybe a little too cheesy.
Chris: Well, it’s a nicer mythology for the sign than “It was built to advertise a housing development and existed in various states of disrepair until the late ’70s.” I’ll take it.
Matt: On the blimp, Cliff and Jenny are resigning themselves to a similar fiery fate when Lothar emerges from below to make their last few moments a little more craggy.
Chris: Finally, we discover what it takes to kill that dude: A zeppelin explosion. But Cliff and Jenny are spared such a fate when Howard Hughes shows up on an autogyro for the rescue. You know Bilson and De Meo were laughing their asses off when they wrote that line of the synopsis.
Matt: The word “autogyro” alone could send the best of us into hysterics.
Chris: The government covers up the story of Sinclair being a Nazi, and even though the jetpack gets blown up, Howard Hughes shows up to drop a brand new Gee-Bee off with Cliff so that he gets to go to nationals after al! Everything works out okay!
Matt: Hughes tosses Cliff some of that Beeman’s gum, too, which was actually a brand of gum pilots used for good luck. And, oh my, Jenny’s still got the jetpack plans!
Chris: Can’t wait to see how Peevy rebuilds it in The Rocketeer 2! Wait…
Matt: I’d have to say the number-one high point was Dalton’s performance as Neville Sinclair. He nails the pulp villain so well, and does a pretty good Errol Flynn impression, too.
Chris: To be honest, there’s just a hell of a lot to like about this movie. It’s sharp, it’s got some great set pieces, some witty writing, some solid adventure stuff. Campbell, Connelly and Dalton all do really well in their roles.
Matt: Campbell and Connelly are great at being earnest, beautiful people, but the bad guys get to have the real fun. Dalton and Sorvino are both great, and in different ways. Sorvino as that frustrated gangster and Dalton just chewing scenery. Of the good guys, I’d say Alan Arkin probably gets to do the most, in terms of fun character stuff.
Chris: I think what I like most about it is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Everything’s very dire for the characters and they treat it as such, but the movie’s not afraid to have a big eight-foot-tall Frankenstein goon running around snapping people in half, or to have Fake Errol Flynn seducing Fake Bettie Page and then dragging her onto his evil Nazi zeppelin. It’s as goofy and as fun as you want a movie about a guy called “The Rocketeer” who flies around with a jetpack to be.
Matt: There are loads of running gags and scenes that go just beyond reality. Then there are the scenes that go way beyond reality. It definitely has a sense of taking place in a world that’s more four-color than our own.
Chris: I think one of the real tragedies of this movie not doing so well is that we didn’t get a wave of comics-inspired movies that were trying to be just as fun as this one.
Matt: As we observed, some of the special effects are pretty lame.
Chris: Yeah. It’s hard to remember if they’re on par with other films from the time, but this was the same year that Terminator 2 came out, and two years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, both of which look a hell of a lot better. Admittedly, T2‘s budget was over twice what Rocketeer had, and Indiana Jones was not about a dude flying around on a jetpack, but still.
Matt: Comparatively, this movie did have a fairly modest budget. You sort of have to wonder why, since Roger Rabbit, a Disney movie also set in this era and made three years earlier, had $30 million more to work with.
Chris: I’d guess that was a necessity of doing the humans/toons interacting. Also, as fun as this movie is, the plot doesn’t hang together nearly as well as it should. It draws a lot of comparisons to Indiana Jones – that was part of the reason it got green-lit, after all – but it’s just not in Indy’s league as far as setting up a plot that can move elegantly from one set piece to the next. “Golly, is Cliff gonna make it to the nationals?!” is the driving force of his arc for the first half of the movie, until it’s suddenly “NAZIS WILL RAIN DEATH UPON AMERICA FROM THEIR JETPACK UBERMENSCHEN.”
Matt: Yeah, the stakes are pretty low for the first hour or so, and then they ramp up quite substantially. It probably would have been better for word-of-mouth and simple audience enjoyment to get some of the Nazi threat in there earlier. Also, again: Kids want to see the Rocketeer right up front, not 40 minutes in.
Chris: Yeah. I defended that first section of the movie when we talked about it, but you’re right. It makes sense for the characters, but for the audience, there’s really no reason to go through the whole “Cliff and Peevy wreck a statue” sequence.
Matt: One last thing: Howard Hughes serves as kind of just a plot device. I like Terry O’Quinn’s performance quite a bit, but this is a guy who initially says, “Oh well, my rocket’s broken, too bad,” then has movies in his office about the importance of jetpacks. It makes sense that he wouldn’t want this thing to get into the wrong hands, but his motives are kind of murky.
Chris: Agreed. Also, while it’s not the movie’s fault, shame on Chris Sims and Matt Wilson for objectifying Jennifer Connelly in their review. Honestly, show some professionalism, guys.
Matt: What a couple of clowns.
Matt: In spite of its budgetary and pacing issues, The Rocketeer is just fun. Even the slower parts near the beginning aren’t at all boring. It’s the stakes that are uneven.
Chris: It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s still pretty solid. I wonder what we would’ve seen if this movie had been a huge success, you know? Obviously its status as a relative flop didn’t stop Hollywood from making movies based on independent comics – we’ve got four more coming down the pipeline in the next few weeks and there are more besides – but I wonder what they would’ve taken from it as a success.
Matt: I think it’s sort of showing up in movies now. This movie has a clear influence on the Captain America movie Johnston directed 20 years later, and you might say the same for all the Marvel movies. They share this sort of breezy quality where the characters just hang out a lot, and that’s OK.
Chris: So The Rocketeer eventually gave us Captain America, and now, the latest news is that Disney is planning a Rocketeer movie reboot in the wake of Captain America‘s success. Plus, we’ve got a revival of Rocketeer comics from IDW with some great work being done by creators like Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, and a bunch of new appreciation for Dave Stevens in general.
Matt: It’s so nice to see this very deserving material get some real recognition. Although that doesn’t mean much for Billy Campbell, who’s got a TV movie called Killing Lincoln coming out soon.
Chris: Ouch. Either way, that wraps up The Rocketeer! Next week, we’re skipping ahead to 1994 for a movie I haven’t seen in at least fifteen years: The Mask.
Matt: I remember very little except the catch phrases. Oh, the catch phrases.
Chris: You mean you’ve blocked out the part where Jim Carrey sodomizes two mechanics with exhaust pipes? Because that definitely happens, my friend, and we’ll see it in lurid, livid color next Monday, right here on ComicsAlliance!
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