Have You Seen… ‘The Rocketeer’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton star in ‘The Rocketeer’ (image credit: Disney).

Year:  1991

Starring:  Bill Campbell, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Terry O’Quinn

Directed by:  Joe Johnston / written by:  Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (story by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo & William Dear.  Based on The Rocketeer, created by Dave Stevens)

What’s it about?

Test pilot Cliff Secord comes into possession of a prototype rocket-pack that allows him to soar into the skies as the heroic ‘Rocketeer’…

In review: why you should see it

An unfortunate financial disappointment for Walt Disney Pictures on its theatrical release (barely recouping its budget of around $40 million) in the summer of 1991, The Rocketeer has thankfully earned more appreciation in the years since to become something of a cult favourite.  Based on the graphic novel by the late writer/artist Dave Stevens, itself inspired by 1940s adventure serial King of the Rocket Men, The Rocketeer is a charming film of a more innocent and less cynical time and is a fun, heroic adventure taking place in late 1930’s America.  With lots of heart, an adventurous spirit and a nostalgic magic it’s impossible not to fall under its spell.

A charismatic and likeable Bill Campbell (recognisable by fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation from his guest role in the 1988 episode “The Outrageous Okana”) plays Cliff Secord, a daring young stunt pilot who comes into possession of a hi-tech rocket-powered jet pack invented by Howard Hughes (a fictionalised version of the real-life aviator portrayed by Terry O’Quinn), lost by its creator and desperately sought after by both Nazi agents and the FBI.  Unaware of the origins of the rocket pack and the danger he faces, Cliff uses it to rescue his friend, who runs into trouble during an aerial performance at a local air show.  His deeds witnessed by the crowd, the mysterious helmeted hero is celebrated by the media as “The Rocketeer”.  Needless to say it isn’t long before Cliff is embroiled in troubles of his own as enemies who will stop at nothing to possess the rocket-pack begin to close in on him.

The ever-stunning Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Cliff’s actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake, who is more than just the token love interest or a mere damsel in distress and comfortably holds her own as she gets involved in the action.  There’s great chemistry between Connelly and Campbell and together with Secord’s friendship with his mentor, “Peevy” (Alan Arkin) helps drive the emotional core of the story.  Played with a seething menace and maniacal intensity, Flash Gordon’s Timothy Dalton (following his all-too brief and undervalued stint as super-spy James Bond in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) is brilliant as the central villain, arrogant box office star Neville Sinclair with a sinister agenda and a true identity that only enhances the threat he poses to not just Secord and his friends but also the entire world.

Cliff Secord blasts into the skies in ‘The Rocketeer’ (image credit: Disney).

Director Joe Johnston (later to helm Jurassic Park III and Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger) is the perfect fit, his experience working with Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones films lovingly infused into the retro-pulp action adventure of The Rocketeer.  Johnston skillfully directs the aerial sequences and delivers some solid action set-pieces, including a climactic duel between Sinclair and Secord aboard the airship Luxembourg which provides a suitably exciting finale that tops things off nicely.  The high-flying action is facilitated by Industrial Light & Magic who produce some commendable special and visual effects work.

The Rocketeer is something of a lost gem, a film that is incredibly entertaining with likeable characters, a good script and decent special effects.  It’s disappointing that the film’s lack of success (despite receiving favourable reviews) nixed the prospect of any sequels and sobering to think that Disney might have ever had a comic book flop on their hands, but this was some years before the corporation would acquire Marvel Studios and reap the benefits of the popular and lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Still, despite the further adventures of The Rocketeer appearing in comic book form and an animated series aimed at young viewers (for which Bill Campbell would reprise his role), it’s a shame that the property has not been revived for the big screen, something it is more than ripe for.

Geek fact!

Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo had another comic book property under their creative belts, the writing duo responsible for the development of the short-lived 1990 television series of DC’s The Flash, featuring future Henry Allen, John Wesley Shipp in the lead role of Barry Allen.

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