The Rocketeer (1991)

The RocketeerIt’s 1938, and stunt-pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is flying his newly built Gee Bee racer in preparation for an upcoming competition. The plane, however, is irreparably damaged when a stray bullet from a high-speed police chase causes it to crash land. The FBI catch the culprit, but not before he is able to hide a stolen prototype in a nearby hanger. Cliff and mechanic A. “Peevy” Peabody (Alan Arkin) find the rocket that night, and together they create a helmet to aid manual flight. When girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is kidnapped by the third richest man in Hollywood (Timothy Dalton), Cliff becomes The Rocketeer in order to save the day.

As we reach superhero saturation point here in the 21st Century, it might be easy to forget that the genre has been in near-constant use for decades — and not just in the guise of Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman. Released in 1991, however, The Rocketeer — based on Dave Stevens’ character of the same name — feels more in line with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Saturday morning serials of the ’70s and ’80s than the more cynical, hard-edged and strangely apologetic superhero movies of recent years. It’s set in an age when men were men, superheroes were super and heroic, and bad guys were Nazis. Over-simplistic, perhaps; fun, definitely.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that director Joe Johnston should have in the years since been chosen to inherit Spielberg’s Jurassic Park franchise and to direct Marvel’s similarly period-set adaptation of its First Avenger, Captain America. The Rocketeer is a wide-eyed wonder of a film, an exercise in gee-whizz earnestness which is at once old-fashioned and utterly timeless. The special-effects hold up remarkably well, with Industrial Light & Magic once again relying as much on models, stop-motion and matte paintings as CGI. It’s similarly unsurprising that the property — initially planned as a three-part franchise — has been eyed for the remake treatment, where the balance might well tip the other way.

As atmospheric and effective as the period setting may be, it is Johnston’s cast that constitute the biggest success. Plucked (and eventually returned) to relative obscurity, Billy Campbell is beautifully cast in the leading role, making it immediately his own in a way that Johnny Depp — Disney’s preferred choice — almost certainly wouldn’t have. He is joined by a fresh-faced Jennifer Connelly, Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn and, in a particularly inspired piece of casting, Timothy Dalton as megalomaniac movie star Neville Sinclair. It’s a great ensemble, and with Campbell and Connelly contracted for a sequel it really is a shame that the film largely flew over its audience’s heads.

When I discovered The Goonies at age 15 I thought that I had uncovered the last of Hollywood’s hidden gems. Happily, The Rocketeer proves the past can still delight, surprise and inspire, and that your next favourite film needn’t necessarily come from the future.



About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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