Joe Johnston’s hiring for the first Captain America movie was hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with his career to date. Initially a big cog in the machine that is Industrial Light & Magic; he then launched into a directing career that gave us the diet coke versions of Spielbergian style adventures that included the fun but flawed Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. However, the best example of Johnston’s particular brand of action adventure is the 1991 adaptation of the cult 1982 comic by Dave Stevens that Disney scrambled to get made in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman. Bathed to the point of drowning in the warming glow of nostalgic 1930’s Americana, The Rocketeer score high when it comes to some old school derring do but regrettably burns out when it comes to the staying power of it’s lead actors.
As stunt pilot Cliff Secord tries to land the experimental plane that’s hopeful going to make the fortune of him and his trusty, crusty mechanic Peevy, the landing goes disastrously wrong thanks to the arrival of a couple of mobs guys driving through their hanger firing tommy guns at pursuing FBI agents. It turns out that the crooks had stolen a super secret prototype for a jet pack created by none other than Howard Hughes but managed to stash it before getting taken down by trigger happy G-men. Unsurprisingly, it’s found by Cliff who sees this as a last resort to save his and Peevy’s jobs and after some worrying (and near fatal) tests, eventually puts it to good use by strapping it on and performing a daring mid air rescue under the masked guise of The Rocketeer. However, considering that there can’t be that many experimental one-of-a-kind jetpacks flying around California, both Howard Hughes and the Feds, plus the gangsters who stole it in the first place, soon come looking and Cliff and Speevy have to think fast. Meanwhile, Cliff’s fiance, aspiring actress Jenny is finding herself being wooed by moustachioed Hollywood swashbuckler Neville Sinclair who turns out to also have a vested interest in the jetpack for predictably shadowy means. With so many people ready to do whatever it takes to get their hands on this potentially world changing tech, Cliff has to work extra to stay one step ahead of various assailants, especially Sinclair’s hulking, psychotic gopher, Lothar – can this brand new, all-American hero earn his wings and rise to brand new heights..?
While virtually disappearing from sight virtually a couple of months after it’s initial release, The Rocketeer is actually a quaint little throwback to the time before superhero movies ruled Hollywood with an iron fist that makes Kevin Fiege’s desicion to have him call the shots on Steve Roger’s shield slinging antics an utter no brainer. Tonally, they’re the same fucking movie and Johnston has a particular talent for buttering up it’s audiences with thick, gooey, 30’s atmosphere which turns out to be The Rocketeer’s most endearing aspect. The film is loaded with little nuggets of period-relevent details that enrich the rather basic story; Howard Hughes is an actual character in the film, another character bumps into W.C. Fields in a restaurant, Timothy Dalton’s Sinclair is an obvious clone of Errol Flynn (right down to taking his alleged sympathies for the Nazis and running with it to turn him into a caddish arch villain) and even Sinclair’s henchman, Lothar is modeled after author and bit part thug actor Rondo Hatton.
Aside from falling down the rabbit hole of random 30’s references, the actual Rocketeer stuff has that that reassuring look of pre-CGI of ILM alchemy that triggers instant nostalgia in anyone born before 1980 with go-motion models and matte lines everywhere. The first outing of Cliff in the awesomely comic accurate costume is actually pretty cool, mixing mid air heroism with a nice line in breakneck slapstick that preempts the tone of the MCU’s first phase to a spooky amount. The finale, set in, around and on a bloody great zeppelin, also has a very stong Indiana Jones feel to it as Nazis fall screaming to their death and all and any dangling plot points are tied up in a massive Hindenburg-sized explosion that surely would have atomized the 20 square blocks of Hollywood that was directly under it…
However, for a film that nails it’s action so smoothly, it’s quite the shame that the leads show the same lack of chemistry as a burnt out laboratory. Billy Campbell proves to be as square as his own jawline and while Jennifer Connelly has grown to be a fantastic actress, here she not a lot to do except look admittedly stunning with her alabaster complexion and ruby red lips while she waits to get kidnapped. It goes a fair way to sucking the life out of the movie which is only partially restored by a colourful supporting cast who seem to be having the time of their lives. Former Bond Timothy Dalton relishes his bad guy turn, effortlessly being a dashing prick from under a pencil-thin moustache, Alan Arkin gives good, grumpy sidekick and Paul Sorvino plays a suprisingly stand-up mob boss and its genuinely nice to see these guys vacationing in a genre they’re not usually known for (Arkin especially).
However, despite their efforts and that spirited action, Johnston just can’t shake that all encompassing shadow of Spielberg which cloaks proceedings in a rather unfortunate shade of also-ran – for every Jurassic Park, Johnston answered with Jurassic Park III, for Hook a Jumanji and for Raiders Of The Lost Ark we got The Rocketeer; a an honest-to-besty, gosh-darned, old-school actioner that flies high and fast, but fails to stick the landing despite it’s obvious and infectious love for the period.
The Rocketeer unfortunately just doesn’t have enough juice to make it into the stratosphere…