starring Bill Campbell, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton
screenplay by Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo, based on the graphic novel by Dave Stevens
directed by Joe Johnston
by Walter Chaw Joe Johnston's rousing Art Deco audition for Captain America, The Rocketeer is, twenty years on, as crisp and clean as laundry-line linen. It has a beautiful hero, his beautiful girl, and Alan Arkin as the crotchety old Q/Whistler/Lucius Fox to guarantee that no matter what our hero does to his gadgets, there'll always be more and better ones to take their place. The villain is modelled on Errol Flynn and works for the Nazis, and you don't have to squint very hard to figure out that a good portion of the picture's stickiness and cult accretion has to do with the idea that its 1938 setting allows for a measure of movie-history geekery. A sequence on a film set as bad guy Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, chewing scenery like a champ) shoots a period swashbuckler is subversive not only for the way that it reflects the vehicle in which it finds itself, but also for suggesting that the Golden Age of Hollywood was, as we suspected all along, rife with miscreants and foreign agents. It allows for a greater connection to our working-class heroes, as well as the comparison the movie makes now again of The Rocketeer to Chuck Yeager. And at its best, it allows The Rocketeer to feel exactly like the best kind of aw-shucks patriotism: spic-and-span and "you got a stick of Beeman's?" and based on a love of our ideals instead of a hatred of an Other.
Test pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell) and his mechanic Peevy (Arkin) stumble upon a jet-pack developed by Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) for the military as a response to a Nazi plot to create an army of jet-packed übermenschen. The device has recently been stolen by gangsters (led by Paul Sorvino's Eddie Valentine) in the hire of Nazi sympathizer/box-office champ Neville Sinclair--though they don't know he's an agent of the Reich--and hidden from the bumbling Feds in Cliff and Peevy's hangar. The process of discovery as Cliff and Peevy, as a test, strap the doodad to a statue of Charles Lindbergh is exactly the right kind of cheesy--and a lovely analogy, besides, for the film as a whole. Even the nature of the doodad itself is a celebration of American ingenuity (a celebration of capitalism, even: the sort of ascension into the strata that Art Deco as a movement intimated) as opposed to supernatural or extraterrestrial intervention. The Rocketeer is too much in love with being American to suffer the idea that Old Glory didn't represent the wellspring of archetype in the modern age. Case in point: Cliff's girl is rocket-chested Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), who looks like an Art Deco objet d'art installation and who all by herself embodies the American spirit of expansionism, excess, and ripe sexuality. When Neville and the Nazis spirit her away to an evil, essentially functional zeppelin, the battle for her isn't simply personal, it's aesthetic. It's...ideological.
The Rocketeer is wonderful. It owes its lineage to Richard Donner's Superman and to the Golden Age of comics, and it identifies director Johnston--long before The Wolfman and Captain Americadid--as Donner's (and Joe Dante's, sans perversion) direct cultural descendant. Its cheese is served straight, with healthy doses of saturated colour and flag-waving. Comparisons to Raiders of the Lost Ark at the time of its release obscure, I think, that in there among that movie's many imitators were a few legitimate cousins. In the case of The Rocketeer, the literal source, Dave Stevens's early-eighties comic-book series, was itself true to the Saturday Matinee heroes, the mosaic of which also bore Indiana Jones. Parallel geneses, I'd argue, despite that Johnston was the Visual Effects Art Director onRaiders (essentially he's responsible for the opening-of-the-Ark sequence). And with The Rocketeer, there's something like maturity in its representation of itself; cynicism intact, worldliness right there under the surface, The Rocketeer enters into an agreement with us that the film is a conversation between adults (something I'm never sure of with Spielberg), albeit adults indulging in nostalgia for a time that none of us experienced firsthand. The wonderful, delightful irony of it is that the nostalgia now is for the first time I saw this movie, back in 1991. The picture's romantic, but, more importantly, it's Romanticism, and if it took The Wolfman and Captain America to rediscover Johnston, at least the success of Captain America may have finally afforded The Rocketeer the same favour.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Disney offers up The Rocketeer on Blu-Ray in a 20th Anniversary Edition complete with a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that's light-years above not just the VHS copy I still own, but the 1999 first-gen DVD, too. If it's not the sharpest presentation I've ever seen, thank heavens it's free of the edge enhancement that probably would've plagued the image had Disney released this earlier in the format's life (and no doubt rendered the visual effects laughably transparent rather than cozily-dated). Then again, I don't think this movie was ever more than a slightly soft evocation of faded watercolours on old newsprint. There's some black crush that's obvious yet not overly distracting, and select moments where skin tones seem more orange than ruddy, but it's the best The Rocketeer's ever looked on home video. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is less impressive, showcasing a pre-digital mix without much imagination going on in the rear channels. It's fine, though, only tinny now and again and only for short periods when it is, while James Horner's rousing score (blind squirrels, nuts) is rendered in full. There are no special features on the platter, sending the message that "20th Anniversary Edition," in Disney parlance, means "Be grateful you're getting this at all." Fair enough. Originally published: April 2, 2012.