Jennifer Connelly and Bill Campbell in The Rocketeer.
I have always been fascinated by World War II and super heroes. I recall the first time I went to see The Rocketeer, I was very excited! Two of my favorite subjects combined into one movie seemed like a can't miss idea.
The Rocketeer tells the story of an American test pilot, Cliff, who discovers a mysterious jet pack. When he dons it, and a helmet made by his friend, he becomes a high flying superhero. Before he knows it, The Rocketeer is fighting gangsters as well as Nazi spies. He battles in a Hollywood night club and atop a air ship at the movies climax.
One of the best things about this movie, for me, is the setting. It takes place in Hollywood in the late 1930's. Old movie stars like Clark Gable and W. C. Fields show up briefly as characters. Howard Hughes actually plays an integral part to the plot.
The cast is very uneven. Bill Campbell has the hair and the looks of a movie star but lacks enough screen presence to carry a movie. Jennifer Connelly plays Cliff's girlfriend and wannabe actress. Where as Connelly proved later in her career that she can act, here she is little more than the damsel in distress. A very hot damsel in distress to be more exact.
The best cast member is Timothy Dalton, who hams it up without being obnoxious. He plays Nazi spy, Neville Sinclair, who is masquerading as a movie star. That makes him a villain with a huge ego! At one point, Cliff is fighting him and says, "Where's your stuntman now Sinclair?" Neville responds, "I do my own stunts." Another time he proudly claims that no one will suspect him because he is "...the number 2 box office star in America."
As Tim Burton's Batman(1989) proved, the villain does not carry the movie, the hero does. Campbell, however, does not give Cliff any discernable personality. Early in the movie he is assertive, has a temper and punches a guy. Later in the movie he is awkward and bumbling. With the lead being so inconsistant, the rest of the movie is left with a hole that never quite gets filled, no matter how good the action scenes are.
The gorgeous Jennifer Connelly in The Rocketeer.
I completely agree with you about Campbell, Eric. He's so desperately dull that's he's like a mannequin. He's got the hair, the height and the looks, but he lacks pizzazz and personality. Although he's not the movie's only problem, he is its biggest.
Connelly is still in her curvacious phase for this movie and is absolutely gorgeous. She looks as though she really could be a star from the 1930s. Her's isn't exactly a demanding role, but she looks so damn good doing it, who cares!
It is indeed Dalton though, who steals the movie. He hams it up to perfection as Neville. Like Connelly, he really does come across as someone who could have been a star in the '30s. He's very much an Erroll Flynn figure.
The one cast member you don't mention Eric, is Alan Arkin as Peevy, the mechanic. Arkin is a terrific character actor who makes almost any movie better just by being in it. He does an odd little accent here that just makes me laugh whenever he says, "Clifford".
Despite this being strictly a lightweight movie, I still have to find fault with some of the plot. Nazis showing up on American soil and firing on the FBI would probably have started WWII a few years early, but no one seems too bothered about it here. Eddie, the gangster, is surprised to learn that Neville is a Nazi. Well, what did he think an actor wanted a rocket pack for anyway? Lastly, Neville plans to make his escape in a Zeppelin. One of the FBI agents even says, "Oh no, he's getting away!" Yeah, but in a Zeppelin! How far is he planning on making it in a gigantic Zeppelin with a 50 foot tall swastika on the side of it!?!
The Rocketeer is entertaining in a pleasant, but mild sort of way. It's enjoyable enough, but could and should have been more.
Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair in The Rocketeer.
You can call me 20 years late to the party if you want but I had somehow never seen this movie. As a huge fan of the era its plot is tailor made for my tastes. I thoroughly enjoyed The Rocketeer and think both my brothers a bit harsh on it. Based on a graphic novel it manages to capture how we imagine 1930’s Hollywood to have been. Good use was made of the many clichés of the period but they maintained just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.
Bill Campbell isn’t bad at all in the part. Sure he is a bit dull but then aren’t many superhero alter-egos? Clark Kent comes to mind for example. He only needed to look the part and be able to speak coherently. I do agree that Timothy Dalton steals the movie. As Scott wrote he is loosely based on Errol Flynn who was at one time suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Jennifer Connelly is ravishing as Jenny Blake. She does possess the beauty and glamour of an old-fashioned movie star but Jenny is more than just a damsel in distress. She saves the Rocketeer from capture at the South Seas Club after all and later knocks Neville out in one of my favorite scenes. He is trying to seduce her using lines of dialogue from his movies. She, of course, recognizes each of them saying, “You said that to Greta Garbo in Napoleon's Mistress.” Or announcing, “Moonlight on Broadway - Carole Lombard. The scene on the top of the Empire State Building.” After hitting Neville she proudly states, “Now I can say I’ve played a scene with Neville Sinclair.”
I wasn’t bothered by the plot contrivances that Scott pointed out. This is escapist fantasy entertainment not a serious war drama after all. And I actually felt a swell of patriotism in my chest when the gangster Eddie Valentine discovers Neville is working for the Nazis. He tells him, “I may not make an honest buck, but I'm 100% American. I don't work for no two-bit Nazi. Let the girl go!” It is a cheer worthy moment.
This movie is a delight from start to finish. It had me enthralled right up to the end where Neville crashes onto the iconic Hollywood sign destroying the “land” part that was originally there. Many movies have tried to evoke the magic of classic Hollywood and many movies have failed. The Rocketeer succeeds brilliantly where others haven’t because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it never goes needlessly over-the-top. The fact that it was based on a graphic novel undoubtedly explains how they got the look and feel of the setting so right and the action scenes and special effects hold up quite nicely too. In short, The Rocketeer knows exactly what it is trying to be and it succeeds in every way.
Photos © Copyright Walt Disney Pictures (1991)