My dad is responsible for much of my obsession with movies. He was the one who occupied me with Escape From New York while he did some post-production work, even though he denies this story. More than that, though, I had a taste for trash long before I’d seen that movie. No. My father’s movie influence comes in the form of a taste for the golden age of Hollywood. Pictures from the 30′s and 40′s are his bag, man, and as a result, they became my bag. As much as The Marx Brothers and as much as the musicals, my Dad loves serials and I took an instant liking to them. As videotape made the move from a rental item to a purchase item, some of the first properties to make the move to home video shelves were collections of matinee serials and a whole bunch of these turned up at my house. My particular favorites of the bunch were The Mysterious Doctor Satan, whose serials featured the exploits of a hero in a three piece suit and a shitty piece of fabric draped over his head, fighting a really crappy robot, and Radar Men From The Moon, which featured a lot of really ambitious special effects (though, that’s not saying much) and a dude with a bullet helmet that flew around with a jetpack. This was the first of the Commando Cody serials and they were the shit. Nearly every episode ended the same way. The hero’s car, with the hero in it, plunged over a cliff, or so it seemed. The following episode always cleared this up by showing that he narrowly escapes a fiery death by leaping to safety at the last minute. How this never got old is a mystery to me.
It’s no secret that I’m a giant fan of comics but I’ve never read a single issue of The Rocketeer. Even back when the movie came out and I was at the height of my super hero craze. The books were indies and not in publication at the time and anyway, I had no interest in throwback books at the time, I really only gave a shit about Wolverine. What a fool I was. These days, The Rocketeer is exactly the kind of comic I want to read. I don’t know what that says about me but I like to think that it means that maturity has brough a certain aged sophistication to my tastes in pulp. I also find myself reading Marvel books from the 70′s with a renewed appreciation that I didn’t have back in the day. So it was this revelation that I needed to read The Rocketeer coupled with an aborted plan to make a Rocketeer Halloween costume this year (the fucking thing would cost $2000 on the low end) that I felt like I needed to watch the movie. After all, it had been 19 years since I’d last seen it and I didn’t remember a damn thing about it.
Cliff Secord is a stunt pilot that finds a stashed jet pack in his flight hangar after an FBI chase and shootout ends there. Cliff winds up using it when an air stunt goes badly and he rescues his friend from a failing airplane. This draws a lot of attention from the press and it turns out that the mob wants this jet pack, it’s inventor, Howard Hughes, wants it back and Hollywood star, Neville Sinclair wants it to deliver to Ze Germans, who want to use it to conquer Europe and then the world. Everybody wants a jet pack because they’re cool, but this make it sound like a real pain in the ass.
The Rocketeer bombed upon its release in June of 1991. It was the latest in a wave of highly stylized summer blockbusters and in the wake of Burton’s Batman and that Dick Tracy picture, Disney thought they had a sure thing but something went wrong. Audiences failed to connect with The Rocketeer and that’s a crying shame. It’s a fucking sweet movie and it treats fans of pulp novels, comic books and old-school matinees really well. The attention to detail that director Joe Johnston rolled out is amazing and it’s a tribute to serials and Hollywood’s golden age in ways that you just don’t see coming. I caught it at a drive-in back in the summer of its release, but I don’t have any memory of it from then, which strikes me as odd since I seem to have a good memory for shit that doesn’t really matter in any way (I also don’t remember that Dick Tracy flick, but then again, does anyone?). Having now taken the time to go back and check it out again, I don’t think I have a single bad thing to say about it.
What you have is a mostly awesome cast of characters that sell the serial vibe. Star, Bill Campbell, plays a convincing gee-whiz bystander type, pulled into this fantastic scenario. He’s not too cavalier and he’s not too dopey. Campbell, as Cliff Secord, is exactly who he needs to be. Looking good in an evening gown and playing opposite Campbell is Jennifer Connelly in an early role where she spends most of the time as kidnapping-bait for the bad guys and for a movie couple they have great chemistry that sells their relationship and gives the peril a little bit of volume. Timothy Dalton, then the current James Bond, channels Errol Flynn at his dashing best and the character reflects the then-unrefuted claims that the real Errol Flynn was a spy for the Nazis (He wasn’t). To round out what is a mostly pitch-perfect cast of matinee characters, there’s a towering heavy made up to look like Rondo Hatton and Terry O’Quinn shows up for a turn as Howard Hughes.
The Rocketeer is paced so perfectly with plenty of fantastic action and the Rocketeer costuming, itself, is a thing of beauty that fans of the movie shell out thousands of dollars to reproduce for themselves. It was great summer movie material in a time when the summer blockbuster was at its most vapid. Poor box office performance and high expectations from Disney sealed its fate, though, and the planned sequels, two of them, were canned for good. Though, I’m told the comic is a mostly adult affair, the movie does everything to replicate the vibe of those great Republic serials with kids in mind and pulls it off while throwing in the Industrial Light and Magic special effects that the originals could never afford. I can’t help but wonder why this didn’t catch on like the Indiana Jones movies did.