ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘The Rocketeer’ (1991), Part One
Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome to the first installment of ComicsAlliance vs. The '90s! We asked for your votes on what our next series of movie reviews should be, and as usual, you decided to heap on the suffering by pitting us against a series of blockbusters based on indie comics from the '90s. Fortunately for us, we've actually got a good one to watch before we hit "classics" like Judge Dredd and Barb Wire.
Matt Wilson: That's right! We're kicking off with The Rocketeer, one of eight-year-old me's favorite movies, and one of the more confounding flops in movie history.Chris: It really is weird that this movie underperformed, despite being hailed by critics as one of the best comic book adaptations of its time. I wonder if it missed its audience because it was billed as being a superhero flick rather than what it really is, which is a serial-inspired adventure in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He even fights Nazis!
Matt: Maybe it was just the timing that was wrong. A Captain America movie set in the same era, directed by the same director and with much of the same period feel was a huge hit. The Rocketeer may have suffered from being about two decades ahead of its time.
Chris: Could be. And that movie didn't even have jetpacks, so it's obviously inferior. The Rocketeer is, of course, based on the creator-owned series of the same name by Dave Stevens, which is probably the best comic with the fewest issues, and was adapted for the screen by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who were just coming off of being the showrunners for the 1990 Flash TV show.
Matt: And it's directed by Joe Johnston, who prior to this had only directed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but, as I said, helmed last year's Captain America: The First Avenger. He also directed the not-great-but-better-than-it-could-have-been Jurassic Park III, and was an art director on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which makes a lot of sense in light of how this movie looks.
Chris: The whole production seems to have a lot of relatively unknown talent involved. Jennifer Connelly had starred in Labyrinth and was therefore well-known to anyone who had a subscription to HBO in the late '80s, but Billy Campbell was still pretty new - and despite being incredibly likable as Cliff Secord and landing the role of Quincy Morris in Bram Stoker's Dracula the following year, he hasn't really had another big role. It's kind of mystifying.
Matt: How he went from leading man to recurring character on Melrose Place is a head-scratcher. Reading through this movie's cast list is just a tour through great character actors, though: Alan Arkin! Jon Polito! William Sanderson! Paul Sorvino! Terry O'Quinn! It is a goldmine for "Oh, that guy!" guys.
Chris: I remember there being a pretty big push behind this movie, too. It's a Disney picture, and there were Rocketeer strips that ran in Disney Adventures and a Peter David/Russ Heath comic book adaptation that I really loved back when I was 10. In a lot of ways - and I think this is probably true for quite a few people my age - this movie was a gateway to the world of indie comics that came just at the right time to fuel the indie boom that came along with Image.
Matt: It also coincided with a big '90s pulp push that went on for a while even though it never fully got off the ground like people seemed to expect it to.
Chris: We almost lumped this one in with The Shadow and The Phantom for that very reason, but since the Rocketeer was actually created in the '80s, it fits in a little better with the other movies we're going to get to. But yeah, Dave Stevens was way ahead of his time, and if you've never read those comics, you should.
Matt: They are great. But for now, what do you say we get the movie going?
Chris: We open at an airfield in California way back in 1938, where we meet gruff airplane mechanic Peevy Peabody and daredevil pilot Cliff Secord, who are getting ready to take a test run in their new plane. Peevy warns Cliff not to do anything "interesting" - which is kind of an odd way to put it, but it does a pretty nice job of getting some basic characterization for Cliff out of the way - and then bolts him into the cockpit of the awesomely art-deco Gee-Bee for his flight.
Matt: We get a pretty good sense of who Cliff and Peevy are right away, as well as their competitive flight aspirations, without any of the expository dialogue seeming forced. And it's all being taken care of while we get to look at a cool old plane.
Chris: I loved that plane. I haven't actually watched this movie since it came out - except maybe once on VHS back in the '90s? - but looking back on it now, I think it had a pretty profound influence on my tastes. It has a bunch of stuff that I still really find myself drawn to as an adult: the old plane stuff, the art deco aesthetic, Jennifer Connelly in stockings...
Matt: Fair warning, everyone: As much as we like to keep male gazing to a minimum in these reviews, early-90s Jennifer Connelly will likely turn us into Tex Avery wolves, at least momentarily.
Chris: I even have a story to go along with it. But for right now, Cliff's test flight is interrupted by an old timey gangstery car chase, complete with G-men and Tommy guns!
Matt: One of the dirty rats zooming through a big field catches Cliff's plane with a couple shots and he starts losing fuel. But he's an awesome enough pilot that he manages to smash part of the landing gear into the gangsters' car as they drive through the air field and land on one wheel!
Chris: Two fairly ridiculous/awesome things about this scene: 1) I am not sure why the gangster decides to shoot down Cliff's plane. Given what he's carrying - a secret prototype he stole from Howard Hughes's aircraft plant, as we'll find out shortly - I guess it's possible to think that they sent a plane after him, but that's kind of unlikely. I'm pretty sure he was just being a dick.
Matt: Dirt-road chases are pretty bumpy. I'm willing to accept that the gun just popped up at an odd angle. But, the again, 1930s movie gangsters did not give a f**k. They'd shoot at a plane for no good reason, those guys!
Chris: The lousy skels! 2) Cliff punching through the windshield of his airplane when it gets covered in oil is one of the most badass things that he does in this entire movie, and it happens in the first six minutes. That's how you set a tone, y'all.
Matt: Speaking of Cliff and punching, he's working those muscles again when the FBI mooks try to say they're not responsible for the now-destroyed plane. After Cliff grabs a picture of Jenny out of the flaming cockpit (he's devoted!) he decks one of them (he's a hothead!).
Chris: The weird thing is, Movie Cliff actually has less of a temper than his original comic book counterpart, but at least a little of it survives for this scene.
Matt: Disney's got to soften that edge. The G-men let Cliff off easy for the slug, and set to interrogating the surviving gangster, using great phrases of the period like "pine overcoat" and "spit it out, Wilma." They ask him where "the package" is and he tells them it's "blown to hell." The gizmo they find seems to confirm that.
Chris: Jeepers creepers, Matt. You're hittin' on all sixes with this old-timey patter! Of course, what the coppers don't know is that the stickup man switched out the jetpack with... some kind of jetpack-shaped vacuum cleaner that Peevy had laying around the hangar, I guess. I haven't been in enough hangars to know if they typically have enough things you could mistake for jetpacks just laying around, but you know what? I believe it, and so do the feds when they report back to Howard Hughes, eccentric genius and character actor.
Matt: Yes, Terry O'Quinn, most famous for Lost but also from just about everything else, plays Hughes, who is a character added in for the movie. In the comics, it was actually Doc Savage, Man of Bronze who created the jetpack, but Disney didn't bother to get the rights to use him for this movie.
Chris: Stevens did quite a bit of unlicensed Wold-Newton world-building in his books. When Cliff goes to New York to stop Betty from taking some risqué budoir photographs with some high-class "boosh-wah," he runs into a very helpful rich guy with a long nose, a distinctive ruby ring, the strange ability to cloud men's minds, and, one assumes, a lot of thoughts on what sort of fruit is borne by the weed of crime.
Matt: The movie could not do that winky stuff, unfortunately. But Hughes is a great real-life character to throw in here. With all the kooky aeronautical stuff he dreamed up, it makes perfect sense he'd build a jetpack that street-level gangsters would be able to steal even though the thing was a high priority for the U.S. president.
Chris: Rather than see his creation used as a weapon, Hughes reacts to the news that the jetpack's been destroyed with more relief than anything else, and opts not to rebuild it. Then, just after the scene cuts, he starts shuffling around wearing tissue boxes on his feet and yelling at the G-Men about all the germs they've brought onto the premises.
Matt: Back at the airfield, the proprietor, Bigelow (Jon Polito) has slammed Peevy and Cliff with a huge bill for all the damage the chase caused. He tells them the way they might be able to pay everything off is to go back to "the clown show." They set to fixing up their old junker plane when Cliff finds...the Real Gizmo.
Chris: Um, the politically correct term is "Mogwai," Matt.
Matt: My mistake. But what I really meant was that Cliff finds that Hughes jetpack the gangster hid and takes it for an unintentional, unmanned spin around the hangar. All right, more damage to pay for!
Chris: As much as I'd usually be upset about the whole "figuring out it's a jetpack" thing taking valuable screen time away from actually flying around and punching Nazis, Bilson and De Meo's script actually does do a nice job of letting Cliff and Peevy figure it out organically. They poke at it with broom handles, they make a big deal about how the housing's cool even though it's shooting fire out of its exhaust. It all works nicely, even if it's a bit slow for my taste.
Matt: Shy of having Howard Hughes come to the airfield and explain it to them, though, it's kind of the only way to do it and make it fit. There's no reason they should know what this thing is or how it works.
Chris: The best bit is when they decide to test it out by chopping down a statue of famed aviator/Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh and strapping the rocket to it to see how it does. And speaking of fifth columnists, it's time to meet Timothy Dalton as Errol Flynn as Neville Sinclair!
Matt: He was working with gangster Paul Sorvino to pull off a "simple snatch and grab" of that super-expensive machine the U.S. government considered a high military priority (security was so different back then). Now that it's all gone sideways, they're hashing out who's to blame.
Chris: Dalton's pretty fantastic as Sinclair, and this scene sets the tone for his entire performance. He's just devouring scenery, swinging around a fencing foil and demanding that these palookas do their jobs. He's fantastic.
Matt: He tells Sorvino that the thing they were supposed to steal is a rocket, "like in the comic books," and his delivery on the line is just so perfectly gleeful.
Chris: Same with his scene-closing "Bloody amateurs!" as he decapitates a vase full of flowers. Once he discovers where the surviving thug is, he makes a call to the gravelly-voiced "Lothar," and if the jetpack wasn't enough, this is where things start to get super pulpy.
Matt: The cutaway to Lothar's house, where we don't see his face and everything is shot from behind his chair, feels like the cliffhanger to the first episode of a film serial.
Chris: Back at the airfield, Cliff and Peevy's jetpack test smashes in Statue Lindy's head and gives Cliff the idea of performing with the jetpack to raise money to get to "The Nationals." Do they ever really specify what these "Nationals" are? Because I'm just going to assume that it's the same nationals from Bring It On, and that Jennifer Connelly's going to have to out-cheer the East Compton Clovers.
Matt: Maybe it's the Nationals from Glee and Alan Arkin's going to show off his soft-shoe. Peevy eventually gives in to the idea of Cliff flying around in the jetpack, though he says they're going to need a good lawyer, since the feds are looking for the thing. Cliff observes a helmet is in order as well.
Chris: And now, a lingering shot of Jennifer Connelly putting on her stockings.
Chris: I mentioned earlier that I had the comic book adaptation of this movie - remember when they did those? - and while I've grown to really dislike Peter David's writing in my adult life, the fact that he represented this shot as a nine-panel grid drawn by Russ Heath bought him a lot of leeway from me back in my teenage years. If I'd actually seen Dave Stevens drawing it, I probably would've literally died.
Matt: (Knocks head repeatedly with mallet, eyes get huge, pupils separate from eyes)
Chris: Connelly is playing Cliff's girlfriend, Jenny, and that's probably the biggest departure from the comics. I really wonder why they didn't stick with Betty. I assume that Disney didn't want to have a character who was an explicit reference to the pioneering star of fetish films, even if Dave Stevens' love for Bettie Page was one of the comic's most defining aspects.
Matt: I'd suspect, since you can't see the difference between "Betty" and "Bettie" in spoken dialogue, there was some worry that people would think she's supposed to have been the real Bettie Page. I mean, we already have Howard Hughes in here.
Chris: We debated it earlier, but I think we can definitely point to Connelly not having those bangs as one of the major reasons why the film underperformed.
Matt: Whatever the case, after a quick discussion of Jenny trying out for a bit part in a movie with Sinclair, they head off to the movies (a Sinclair picture, no less), where a newsreel provides some pertinent details about the goings-on in Europe.
Chris: Cliff voices his distaste for Hitler just in case we weren't sure whether he was supposed to be a good guy or not, and we definitely get some zeppelin footage. That's a little thing the pros like to call "foreshadowing," kids.
Matt: The next scene includes just plain shadowing, as Lothar, who is a dead ringer for every Dick Tracy villain, sneaks into the hospital to interrogate the injured gangster from earlier about the rocket. The guy tells Lothar where he stashed it with minimal cajoling, but the surprisingly agile Lothar gives him what-for anyway.
Chris: I really like the way this scene is done. I haven't seen enough old movies to know if the shots of Lothar's shadow as he breaks that dude in half are something that was actually done back then, but it definitely has that old-school feeling, especially with the music. If nothing else, the entire sequence feels like something out of a Golden Age comic.
Matt: Stuff happening in shadows is a staple of noir films. You can see it in a lot of movies from this era set in that era, like, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Incidentally, a Roger Rabbit short was supposed to precede this movie in theaters, but for some reason it never got made.
Chris: While Lothar's out a-murderin', Cliff and Jenny have retired to a diner shaped like a bulldog, something nine-year-old me thought was the coolest thing ever. I submit to you that the fact that we do not live in cities that look like Dick Sprang drew them is a compelling reason why we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Cliff is being kind of a dick by arguing with Jenny over whether or not the movie sucked, but she's sweet enough to let him get away with it. Awww.
Matt: Over at the counter, a murderer's row of character actors is also ragging on old fancypants Sinclair, and one of them (who I didn't actually mention before, but it's Eddie Jones) tells a very animated story to a little girl about an airfight with the Red Baron. A wheel off a toy plops into Jenny's soup, and she asks why she and Cliff don't ever go nowhere nice.
Chris: She mentions these elusive nationals yet again, and the character actors decide that ruining Jenny's soup isn't enough, they're going to go ahead and wreck Cliff's night by talking about how he totally crashed his plane, something that he was trying to keep secret. Jenny does not approve.
Matt: She wants him to be more honest with her. He implies that she could have made an effort to come to the airfield and makes a dumb comment about her acting career, so she leaves. It also takes the waitress telling him to go get her for him to get up and go get her. As the waitress observes, Cliff is a dope.
Chris: He's not the best boyfriend, no. Much like his temper, though, Cliff's bristling at Betty/Jenny's career has been toned down quite a bit from the comics. He's more morose about it than constantly, Donald-Duckishly angry, although that might have something to do with Jenny being an actress and not a fetish model.
Matt: Cliff heads home to find Peevy working on a shell to hide the jetpack, there's some quick talk about Peevy's lost love, and Cliff heads to bed. Cliff awakes to find the helmet Peevy has made overnight, and somehow reacts with mild disdain rather than, "That is the coolest helmet I have ever seen!"
Chris: We then move to the set of Neville Sinclair's latest picture, Definitely Not Errol Flynn As Robin Hood. The best thing about this is that the little move he did earlier where he used his sword to flick a flower off the gangster's lapel is repeated for the film, and he actually does it so that one of the extras catches the flower. I like that this is apparently Sinclair's trademark move, because it's just so darn ridiculous.
Matt: There's also a great moment where Sinclair removes his roguish mask to reveal his very-obvious identity, to every other character in the movie's surprise. If someone made this movie within this movie, I'd watch it in a second.
Chris: I was just about to say the same thing. If DVDs had existed in 1991, I'm pretty sure that we would've gotten a full-length version of The Laughing Bandit as a bonus feature. At the very least, a trailer. Also great? That they're actually playing the score on the set as they film the movie.
Matt: The scene abruptly ends when the actress who got the part Jenny tried out for -- the producer's daughter, it turns out -- mangles her line. There's Jenny in the background, as an extra. Cliff shows up to apologize to her, and screws up the next take by knocking over the scenery onto Sinclair.
Chris: It's also revealed that Sinclair actually stabbed his costar during the big fight scene, and Sinclair blames the whole thing on Jenny even though the stabbing happened well before Cliff knocked over the set. Unfortunately, Cliff and Jenny are still hanging out backstage as Cliff tries to explain that he found a jetpack, news that she finds surprisingly unimpressive.
Matt: Dalton's delivery of "I want that...JENNY...banned from the lot!" is so over-the-top and great. It's like he's never heard the name Jenny before. Sinclair overhears Cliff's news and finds it considerably more enticing than Jenny does; he re-hires Jenny, offers her a role as a Saxon princess (this movie's got a lot of princesses) and invites her to the South Seas Club. Do you think it's a little weird that filming seems to be continuing even though a major co-star has been horribly stabbed?
Chris: It's not that weird. I mean, I stabbed Uzumeri two or three times while we were watching Smallville and we still had to get those reviews done on deadline.
Matt: No mortal injury can halt...THE FILMING SCHEDULE!
Chris: While Jenny's being seduced into Timothy Dalton's ratzi plot, the boys down at the airfield are waiting on Cliff to show up while some kind of race goes on. Presumably this is what the nationals are all about, which I must've blocked out of my memory because the stupid Rocketeer SNES game chose to focus on this instead of flying in a jetpack and punching evil James Bonds.
Matt: This is regionals, I'd guess. Sorvino (whose character's name is Eddie Valentine, I didn't mention before) is looking for the jetpack in the middle of all this, I suppose to blend into the crowd, even though he and his guys are definitely the only ones in Gangster Suits. Cliff arrives late for his clown show and Malcolm takes over for him to...perilous results.
Chris: One of the weirdest things about this is that they decide to have the big "clown act" while the actual airplane race is going on in the same general area. That seems like it would be dangerous even if it wasn't some dude who hasn't flown in 20 years up there trying to do... whatever it is that airplane clowns do.
Matt: How would anyone even know he was in clown makeup? Air shows are weird. Anyway, Cliff quickly decides he's got to suit up in the jetpack and put himself in mortal danger to save Malcolm. Peevy sticks some gum on the rocket for good luck and Cliff takes off, 41 minutes into this movie. As a kid, I thought this was entirely too long to wait.
Chris: Yeah, it's almost as long as it takes to see Superman in Superman, but to be fair, there's been a lot going on in that time: Car chases and gunfights, explosions, Lothar, two scenes involving Timothy Dalton swinging a sword around, Jennifer Connelly in stockings...
Matt: I think it's fine now, but at eight or nine years old, I pretty much only wanted to see the last hour or so of this movie. It was called The Rocketeer and I wanted rockets, dammit!
Chris: Well, you're getting them now in a long, fairly elaborate set piece of Cliff trying to save Malcolm from a fiery death. The nice thing about this scene is that the tension is all built around Cliff trying to figure out how to fly the jetpack as he goes - there's a lot of awkward starts and stops and Cliff almost accidentally killing himself that really work nicely.
Matt: His first try, in fact, ends with Cliff smashing through the bottom of the plane and scaring Malcolm so badly he knocks himself out with the controls. I love how Bigelow keeps insisting this is all part of the show, like he could have planned this whole ordeal that ends with a plane exploding in a giant fireball as a guy in a jetpack gets the pilot out just in time.
Chris: The running gag of planes crashing directly into the fuel truck is pretty great, too. Once Malcolm's safe, Cliff decides to fly around and show off a bit, and we get what's probably the best gag in the movie as he flies alongside a passenger plane and salutes, only to knock his control button against his helmet and turn the rocket off at ten thousand feet.
Matt: It almost feels like a little nod toward the Donner Superman movies, since that salute is something Reeve Superman would definitely do. As the press scrambles to report on this flying man, he proves he's eminently fallible.
Chris: There's a lot of comedy in here, and while the effects are definitely Of Their Time - in typical 1991 green screen fashion, you can definitely see Billy Campbell's outline as he's projected against a backdrop - they're not obviously laughable. I doubt it was mind-blowing even back in '91, but it works.
Matt: Some shots are better than others. The parts where The Rocketeer interacts with actual stuff, like the clothes on the clothesline or skipping across the lake, look really quite good. It's just the static shots of him flying that are so obviously green screen.
Chris: Those have the benefit of splashes and clothes that cover up the rough edges, too, which I have to imagine was intentional. It's almost like they planned out how to make this $42,000,000 major studio movie work!
Matt: What's sad is how often that clearly doesn't happen, and in movies with much bigger budgets. Peevy meets Cliff at the lake and they hop in the truck as Valentine's gang pursues them. The truck won't start, so Cliff tells Peevy to put it in neutral and Cliff rockets them to safety. Meanwhile, the press is hounding Bigelow about the rocket guy, and a convenient Pioneer sign inspires him to name him The Rocketeer.
Chris: My other vivid memory of Rocketeer comics from when I was a kid (non-puberty-related this time) is a Disney Adventures strip where a woman thinks it's "Rocket-Ear" and asks why he doesn't call himself Rocket-Head instead.
Matt: RocketHead, I just decided, is my new Motorhead cover band.
Matt: Now that the papers have a hold of the story, everybody knows the jetpack is out there being used: Sinclair is furious and Hughes knows what the feds found burned up was a vacuum cleaner. The G-Men show up to talk to Bigelow and find him, as they put it, "folded in half" with an address written on a notepad.
Chris: The G-Men rush over to the address in question, which turns out to be Peevy's house, where Lothar has gone to do some more practice on his signature "human accordion" act. Cliff shows up just in time to get his head bashed through the ceiling a few times for his trouble before Lothar whips out a pair of tiny .45s and sets off a Whole Thing.
Matt: They hid the jetpack under a lampshade. It's ridiculous, but for a pulpy movie like this, it works.
Chris: They are quite literally hanging a lampshade on it.
Matt: While Lothar and the feds shoot many, many bullets at each other, Cliff and Peevy grab the jetpack and hoof it out of there.
Chris: But not before Lothar grabs Peevy's sketches of the jetpack at some point during this extended gunfight where exactly one (1) person gets shot. But then we trade the staccato of gunfire for the smooth jazz of the fancy South Seas Club, where Sinclair and Jenny are on their date.
Matt: Sinclair chooses to woo Jenny by allowing W.C. Fields to creepily leer at her, which I'm sure was the height of courtship around this time.
Chris: Speaking of creepy leering, I'm just going to go ahead and leave this right here...
Chris: You apologized for our male gazing already, right?
Matt: I did. I'm a little surprised the double (or maybe single) entendre where Fields says "doubly pleased" while the camera pans down to her chest slipped through.
Chris: What's really weird about the W.C. Fields impression is that I only really know that reference second-hand from cartoons, so I cannot shake the feeling that Jenny is being hit upon by that one mouse magician from those awful '70s Looney Tunes.
Matt: Sinclair leaves Jenny to get full-on Field'd so he can head to Valentine's office and have a tough-guy-off with him. Seriously, this is distilled posturing at its essence. When Sinclair asks Valentine who the feds will believe, "a cheap crook or the number-three box office draw in America?" it's sort of half-and-half. Dalton has some amazing lines and deliveries in this thing. And Sorvino replies with, "Number three jerk!" like he's George Costanza.
Chris: One of the best bits of Dalton's performance is that he uses his smooth James Bond voice when he's out in public, and has this much rougher gangster accent that he uses when he's jawin' with the crooks. Valentine has sent his boys to check out the Bulldog Diner in an effort to find Secord, which is pretty convenient since that's actually where Cliff and Peevy are hiding. The thugs arrive and start asking where Secord is, even though Cliff is right in front of them wearing the same outfit that he wore while flying around on his jetpack, minus the helmet. Apparently dude only has the one jacket, although really, that jacket is the only one you ever need.
Matt: Yeah, why would you ever change it? And clearly he's a different guy. His head is a normal human head, and that other guy had a metal head with a rudder!
Chris: Also he is very clearly standing on the ground and not flying. Totally a different guy, no matter what those jodhpurs might make you think.
Matt: When the group at the diner won't give up Cliff, Valentine's guys violently attack pies, coffee and the radio before threatening Peevy with a face grilling. Before the interrogation can come to that sizzling end, one of the goons finds Jenny's number on the wall. He calls it to find that Jenny is at the club with Sinclair! It's a double-cross!
Chris: That's not the only thing they see on the wall: Once the head gangsters have left to go lean on Jenny, one of the more thick-headed gunsels notices a framed photo of Cliff with the same girl whose picture he's been carrying around and finally puts two and two together. Of course, he does this just in time to get socked in the mouth, so I guess that one's a wash.
Matt: Once the lesser goons are dispatched, Cliff straps the jetpack on once again to go take care of things. Just what will he do? We'll have to see next week!
Chris: Cliff's a wanted man, Jenny's in more danger than she knows (and not just from W.C. Fields' notoriously grabby hands), and we haven't even gotten to the Nazis yet, so be here next week as we wrap up The Rocketeer!