The Rocketeer 1991 Review

As a companion to my first episode (coming soon) I thought I would provide a review of the underrated pulp hero film, The Rocketeer.


The current deluge of Superhero films isn’t the first time Hollywood has dipped into the cape and tights well. Over the years there have been highs (Superman 1978) and lows (Superman IV 1987). In the middle of this was a small group of films that revisited the pulp heroes of the 1930’s. The best of these is 1991’s The Rocketeer.


The Rocketeer is a great representation of the heroes of the 1930’s, despite not actually being one. The Rocketeer was created in 1982 by Dave Stevens as a homage to the heroes he loved a child. The film maintains this loving homage and sense of adventure.


The film follows Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), a stunt pilot in 1938 California. A good but unreliable guy trying to get along and impress his beautiful girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), when the mob drop a rocket pack in his lap. The story is a typical hero origin story. Several groups want the rocket pack and Cliff is planning to use it to make money. By the end the good guys win and Cliff becomes a better person. It’s simple and pretty rote, so why do I enjoy it so much?


Simple, this film makes me smile from ear to ear. The characters, the setting, the action are so much fun. Billy Campbell isn’t a great actor but he has a boyish charm and enthusiasm that makes him watchable. The moment he finds the rocket he wants to strap to his back and give it a try. Cliff considers the rocket a chance to do something awesome and make a buck. Ok, Cliff’s arc isn’t one of personal discovery for the greater good. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have heart. Cliff learns to appreciate that there is someone he will put ahead of everything, the woman he loves.  


The supporting cast are really good. Jennifer Connelly as Cliff’s girlfriend, Jenny Blake, feels of the period without being just a damsel in distress. Plus she is stunning throughout. Alan Arkin is, as always, great as the weary but loyal best friend.  Then there are the Villains.


Timothy Dalton brings a moustache twirling glee to the role of Neville Sinclair. He is a smarmy, arrogant rogue made worse by being revealed as a Nazi. However, while being key to the plot making him a Nazi feels a little lazy. He is joined by a host of stereotypical 30’s gangsters and a Monster henchman, Lothar, in impressive (if immovable) Rondo Hatton make up. They are pantomime baddies, they’re bad but you never feel the Heroes are in any actual danger.


Director Joe Johnston brings comic book charm, heart and adventure to the film. A touch he would later bring to another superhero franchise with Captain America: The first Avenger. Despite being produced by Disney the Rocketeer didn’t have as much money as Cap and it shows. The film is let down by the special effects which, even for the year, are weak and haven’t aged well.


Even with iffy effects I love the two big set pieces of the film. In the first Cliff saves a pilot from an out of control Bi-plane during a stunt show, using the rocket pack for the first time. Seeing Cliff in the full outfit is awesome. The Design is great; a pulp hero has leaped from page to screen. The rescue doesn’t go so well, it’s a success but almost at the cost of Cliff’s life. Our hero is finding his feet in the only way a hero can, a birth of fire.


The second is the big finale, which is amazing in its comic book lunacy. A simple trade off escalates to a fight atop a burning Zeppelin. The turning point comes when Sinclair’s true allegiance is revealed and he is joined by a Nazi army. Not sure how they got there but I am happy to go with it. The reveal puts the gangster goons on the side of the FBI in a shoot out against the Nazi’s. During this Cliff, Sinclair and Lothar are fighting on the blimp which, as to be expected, eventually explodes. It is ridiculous but almost pitch perfect for the film.


I am a big fan of the big modern superhero universes. However, watching this makes me wish for a pulp hero universe. Smaller less god like heroes in a bygone era. I am sure it is being considered but until we get it go and enjoy The Rocketeer.