The Rocketeer (1991)
The Rocketeer (1991)

Genre: Superhero Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Release Date: June 21st, 1991 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Joe Johnston Actors: Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, Ed Lauter, Jon Polito, William Sanderson, Clint Howard, Tiny Ron Taylor




t the Bigelow Aeronautical Corporation, racing pilot Clifford “Cliff” Secord (Bill Campbell) tests out a new plane, hoping to compete at a national event. His proud aviation mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) preps the aircraft, which is soon flying high above a car-chase battlefield. FBI agents pursue a getaway vehicle carrying a top secret machine, with bullets spraying from both conveyances – some catching Cliff’s onlooking plane. As the pilot is forced to crash land, escaping gangster Wilmer (Max Grodénchik) stashes the coveted device before getting hauled away by the authorities.

It’s Los Angeles, 1938, and Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) is the inventor and producer of the X3 personal rocket system. But when he learns of his creation’s disappearance at the airfield, he assumes it’s lost forever, refusing to manufacture another. But Cliff and Peevy discover the hidden, metallic mechanism, complete with a strap for positioning on a human torso, and quickly experiment with methods of controlling the chaotic apparatus. Movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) also wants the rocket pack for his own nefarious purposes, having hired gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his goons to snatch it from its new owners. Soon, Cliff is being pursued by just about everyone, especially after he dons a fancy helmet (not too dissimilar from Iron Man’s “Mark I” design) and conducts aerial daredevilry of the rescuing kind, attracting far too much attention in the process.

The supporting characters are sensational, designed to be more memorable and visually eccentric than those found in the typical comic book adaptation. And this film predates the majority of overdone superhero pictures that would give Marvel and DC such a boost in theatrical popularity. Jennifer Connelly is classy, aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (appearing like a live action Snow White), who dreams of being whisked away by a wealthy, romantic, heroic figure – instead of her underachieving, rough-around-the-edges, broke beau who keeps his dangerous profession too secreted. Dalton is sublime as the charismatic villain; Arkin is the comic-relief elderly sidekick, perfecting a role he would become far more recognizable for in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Argo”; and Sorvino is entirely convincing as a hoodlum boss. But perhaps the most inventive supporting role is that of monstrous henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron), a prosthetic-adorned thug with a black suit, throaty laugh, and ghastly face of exaggerated proportions. Leading man Campbell is perhaps the only undistinguished inclusion.

It may be Disney that released the film, but it certainly feels like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas was involved somewhere along the line (though a sequence of Nazi propaganda is animated quite nicely). Based on a graphic novel by Dave Stevens, director Joe Johnston helms a film that is clearly a precursor to his “Captain America” conversion, even making use of the World War II-conscious environment. To “The Rocketeer’s” credit, it’s a vastly superior film, combining stunts, adventure, explosions, damsels-in-distress, formidable adversaries, special effects that aren’t particularly dated, and James Horner’s riveting theme music. And, like Batman, Cliff doesn’t possess any hokey superpowers. It’s momentous, thrilling, intermittently comedic (but never unintentionally), smartly paced, and uncommonly entertaining, boasting an exhilarating finale aboard an enormous dirigible (marking it as yet another grandiosely successful conclusion in such a singular setting – the other being 1985’s “A View to a Kill”) and a parting shot that doesn’t spoil the excitement.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10