Off the Shelf…'The Rocketeer'

For a lot of people out there, the idea of a comic book movie and the reality of one rarely meet in the middle in terms of financial (or fan) success much to the dismay of most audiences.  Countless times, studios have tempted us with intriguing premises for film adaptations of beloved comic book stories but they unfortunately lead to absolutely dismal efforts.  That said some film adaptations actually do well, other surprisingly beat the odds and, in rare cases, a precious few prove to become some of the finest cinema ever made.  Well I wouldn’t put The Rocketeer in that last category, but it is still a damn fun movie and one that not only beat the odds but won a lot of hearts.  I just adore this film and it’s one of my very favorite comic book adaptations of all time – the others being X-Men, [Tim Burton’s] Batman, Batman Begins and Hellboy II, which considering it’s ability to hold it’s own against those powerhouses, I believe that says a lot for this film’s overall quality.

From the moment I left the theater as a kid I knew that “This is what a ‘non-super hero’ comic book movie should be like“.  One thing I still find pretty interesting is that unlike most other comic adaptations, The Rocketeer isn’t a ‘super hero’, and Cliff Secord really isn’t a hero ether.  He’s just one guy, caught up in extraordinary events, who ends up fighting to save his girlfriend, and along the way, his country.  I have read the Dave Stevens graphic novel and they played this pretty damn close to the source material, however the original inspiration for Jenny Blake was ‘the’ Betty Page and I’m sure Disney had a hand in changing that character so not to bear much resemblance to the infamous siren of time.

It’s been widely known that Joe Johnston gets some flack for doing films like Jumanji and Jurassic Park III but to his credit, he did the best with what he had to work with.  To be perfectly fair, they weren’t terrible films and I believe they would have been horrendous had he not been there to save those ill-fated features.  He is still a talented film maker (working on all the original Star Wars films didn’t hurt him experience-wise either).  I believe this film has prepared him for the much anticipated The First Avenger: Captain America.  After all, The Rocketeer is perfect evidence to show that he’s comfortable with with WWII, Nazis and plans for world dominaton, so aside from Steven Spielberg, he’s probably the best man for the job I’d say;)

Beyond the “rocket pack” plot device and premise (which still makes me grin like a kid) there’s one element of the film that I love more than all others.  This movie’s soundtrack is probably my favorite score of all time and I absolutely love what James Horner did for this little popcorn flick.  While he is known for putting the same musical riffs in all his movies and creating a pretty repetitive musical composition, he brought a whole lot of something else to this movie which resulted in just an astounding and outstanding score.  This film probably wasn’t expected to be a blockbuster and make a huge dent in move history, but that didn’t stop Horner from giving this film much more emotion, exhilaration and excitement than it probably deserved.  It could have been a throw-away score but he chose to make it very memorable, diverse and he pulled out all the stops.  This music is almost epic in scale for a much smaller and more modest film effort and I think it enhances every single scene and then some.

Switching gears here, The Rocketeer is chock full of actors that seem born to play their parts.  To me, there’s not one mis-cast in the entire film and the diversity of actors created a great quasi-ensemble just made this film work.  Maybe it’s the repeat viewings and the fact that over the years I have become increasingly endeared to this film.  Even so, I feel that the combination of the wise mechanic Alan Arkin, the everyman Bill Campbell, the always exceptional (and my personal favorite James Bond) Timothy Dalton, and even a young (but still talented) Jennifer Connelly all embodied the characters of the comic as well as recall the character-types from the serials which they were based.  Also I know the recent Oscar grabber The Aviator has many people thinking that no one else but DiCaprio could have played as the infamous Howard Hughes, but I have always thought that Terry O’Quinn (yes, Mr. John Lock himself) was more impressive in his minimal part than Leo was in an entire feature.  I always would have liked to see more of a role for him but maybe it’s the minimal presence that make him so intriguing.

I don’t know how many times I have seen this great film (probably nearing 50 I’d wager) and each time is just another exhilarating trip in this rollercoaster of a film.  Fun for kids and adults, The Rocketter has something special for almost any age group and film fan.  Packing quite a lot into this film, I believe it delivers and especially on repeated viewings.  Lastly, while other films, which pack so much into their feature may seem overloaded and sluggish, this film’s ‘rocket pack’ pace was essential to it’s success.  Containing all the fantastic elements that made the Indiana Jones films work so well in the past (Nazis, pre WWII, danger at every turn, and simply great music) this adaptation of Dave Stevens’ graphic novel also is more like a nostalgic call back to the classic serials of old and gives us all one hell of a ride.  Man I sure wish they would release this in a proper cleaned up release or (fingers crossed) Blu ray edition.

P.S. Speaking of serials, check out this neat vintage trailer someone out there created to give this fun flick a more ‘nostaligic’ feel…ejnoy!!

  • rtm

    I LOVE The Rocketeer! It could’ve been a classic with a compelling story, fun action and great performances throughout. It’s right up there with Indiana Jones The Last Crusades that’s always fun to watch with repeated viewings and people of all ages can enjoy. Not only do I love the hero (the charming Billy Campbell), but I really like the villain as well (played to perfection by thespian Timothy Dalton). I almost forgot that James Horner did the soundtrack. I might have to re-watch this one again pretty soon, thanks for highlighting one of my favorites!

    • Marc

      Well Ruth, thanks for stepping up and letting me know I’m not alone in loving this movie as well. Just like any “popcorn flick” before or after it, The Rocketter is just fun, period and made so much better with great actors especially my secret favorite ‘James Bond’ Timothy Dalton. Secondly, Welcome to the club! Your honorary jacket and membership card are in the mail:)

  • rtm

    Guess what, I just realized Joe Johnston is directing The Wolfman. I came across that as I was researching it for my post (http://wp.me/pxXPC-Bw). Not exactly a comparable film though as The Wolfman looks weird and dark (in a good way) but I’m even more curious now that it’s got the same director. If only they got Timothy Dalton instead of Anthony Hopkins as Lawrence’s father! 🙂

    • Marc

      Dalton in for Hopkins?? Oh now that would be a great casting decision. You get the great idea of the week award! I’d sure like to see that:)

  • rtm

    I definitely have a soft spot for the classically-trained thespian. Look for my tribute to the hugely underrated actor coming soon =)