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Whilst Disney has been killing the box office via their Marvel superhero films in this recent decade, they have ventured into the superhero film genre in the past. Directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), the 1991 film, The Rocketeer, is based on a comic book superhero of the same name created by Dave Stevens.
The film sadly wasn’t a box office success, so much so that Disney released the film internationally under their Touchstone Pictures banner to reach a wider audience. The film has since gained a cult following, but is it deserving of said cult following? Read my review of The Rocketeer to find out!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The film takes place in America during WWII and opens at a country airfield where a stunt pilot, Cliff, played by Billy Campbell, is getting ready to test out a new airplane. His mechanic and friend, Peevy, played by Alan Arkin, gives him tips on how to handle the new plane, but Cliff isn’t nervous.
Cliff’s test flight goes smoothly at first until his plane is accidentally shot by some FBI men below. The FBI men are involved in a car chase with a couple of gangsters on the airfield and through the chaos, Cliff’s plane is accidentally the recipient of some bullets. Cliff manages to land, but the airplane is pretty much totaled as it goes up in flames.
The FBI men don’t care too much about doing anything to help Cliff and Peevy due to the loss of their plane. They’ve been busy chasing the gangsters who stole something valuable, but when they capture one of them, he doesn’t reveal where he’s hidden the object. The FBI men then send the gangster to the hospital hoping to further question him later.
After the FBI men leave, Cliff stumbles upon a device in the seat of an airplane in the local hangar. This happens to be the object that the gangsters stole and hid here before the FBI men caught up with them. It’s a jet pack and Cliff and Peevy test it out later that night using a life-size statue. It needs some adjustments to make it more controllable, but it pretty much does what a jet pack should do. Cliff asks Peevy to make alterations to the jet pack so that Cliff can perform as a sort of “flying man” to make enough money to buy a new plane. Once they have enough money, Cliff will return the jet pack to the feds.
It’s later shown that the gangsters are led by Eddie Valentine, played by Paul Sorvino, who is, in turn, working for a famous Hollywood actor named Neville Sinclair, played by Timothy Dalton. It’s unclear at the moment why Neville wants the jet pack, but after hearing about what happened, he sends one of his goons, a tall, monster-faced man named Lothar, played by Tiny Ron Taylor, to the hospital. Lothar surreptitiously breaks into the room holding the injured gangster and violently “persuades” him to disclose where he hid the jet pack. After finding out the location, Lothar kills the gangster and quickly leaves.
Meanwhile, Cliff goes on a date later that night with his girlfriend, Jenny, played by Jennifer Connelly. The two seem to be very much in love and enjoy a movie together. Jenny is an aspiring actress and is auditioning for a part in a new film starring Neville Sinclair himself. The evening ends at the local airfield diner when Jenny leaves after finding out from another person that Cliff almost died testing out the new airplane earlier. Cliff tries to apologize saying he didn’t want to worry her, but Jenny is hurt that Cliff still treats her as a stranger.
The next day, Cliff goes to Jenny’s set as she’s filming to patch things up with her and tell her about the jet pack he’s found. However, he just manages to cause damage to the set and get her fired from her bit part on the film by the orders of Neville Sinclair himself. But when Neville overhears Cliff mentioning the jet pack to Jenny, he decides to strike up a blossoming relationship with Jenny instead and gets her to come back on the film shoot in a starring role.
The next day, Cliff puts the modified jet pack to its first good use when he uses it to save a friend in the local air show who’s flying a plane that he’s lost control of. Immediately the audience and news crews there get their first look at what they later dub “The Rocketeer”. After the pilot is saved, everyone wants to know who the Rocketeer is including Eddie Valentine and his boys.
Neville reads about the Rocketeer in the papers and sends Lothar to where Cliff is to get the jet pack back. The jet pack is currently at Peevy’s house, so Lothar breaks in and starts to attack Peevy. Fortunately, Cliff arrives in time to save Peevy and the two escape through the back with the jet pack. The FBI men have also come to suspect Cliff and Peevy and start shooting up the house whilst Lothar is still inside. although he manages to escape.
Cliff and Peevy have made it to the local airfield diner where they meet even more people after them: Eddie Valentine’s boys. The gangsters don’t know Cliff and Peevy by face, so they start trashing up the diner until someone there spills the beans as to who Cliff is and where he is now. Nobody lets on, but the gangsters call up Jenny’s boarding house to discover that she’s out to dinner with Neville Sinclair. They leave to go after her since she would know who or where Cliff is.
Cliff uses the jet pack to get to the dining club where Neville and Jenny are before Eddie’s boys do. He poses as a waiter to get a chance to talk with Jenny privately. At first, she thinks Cliff is jealous of Neville, but he tells her the truth about how he’s the Rocketeer and how her life’s in danger. He tells her to go, but Eddie’s boys arrive just then. They see Jenny and Neville realizes that the waiter was Cliff and it leads to a chaotic fight scene between Cliff, Jenny, Neville, Eddie’s boys, etc. The other diners flee the chaotic scene as Cliff manages to escape, but Neville drugs Jenny and takes her back to his home.
After Jenny regains consciousness, she tries to escape from Neville and stumbles upon a hidden radio room in his house…a radio room that has direct contact with Germans!
Apparently, Neville Sinclair is a Nazi spy and wants to obtain the jet pack for them. Neville soon catches up with her and has Eddie call Cliff telling him to meet them at a nearby observatory early next morning to swap the jet pack for Jenny’s life.
Before Cliff heads out to the meeting place, he discovers that the jet pack was built by and stolen from pre-meltdown Howard Hughes, played by Terry O’Quinn. This jet pack is a prototype similar to what the Nazi scientists have planned; they intend to use them to develop an army of flying soldiers. They got info about Hughes’ jet pack from a Nazi spy in the upper ranks of Hollywood whom the FBI haven’t identified as Neville yet.
When Cliff arrives at the observatory, he gets Eddie and his boys to turn on Neville when he outs Neville as a Nazi spy. Eddie and his boys, albeit gangsters, are proud Americans who wouldn’t dream of working for a Nazi.
The movie ends in a climactic fight when Neville calls his fellow Nazi soldiers who have hidden nearby to come to his aid. The FBI men have also arrived on the scene and teaming up with the gangsters and Cliff, they start shooting at and fighting the Nazis.
Neville escapes in a zeppelin and takes Jenny with him, but Cliff uses his jet pack to soar to Neville’s heights and deal with him man-to-man. The zeppelin is about to explode, but Neville gets Cliff’s jet pack away from him and uses it to escape. Unfortunately for him, the jet pack suffered a lot of wear-and-tear and breaks apart as Neville is midair resulting in him falling to his death on the “LAND” of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign.
Cliff and Jenny are rescued from the zeppelin by Peevy in one of his planes and the movie ends on a couple of happy notes. Cliff and Jenny’s love is stronger than ever and Cliff gets a brand-new plane designed by Howard Hughes himself.
And that was The Rocketeer! So, is it a film worthy of its cult following? Honestly, yes! Don’t get me wrong; like any cult film, it isn’t perfect. It has a very interesting premise, but doesn’t use it to its full potential. The pacing is funky with the first half of the film seeming very slow and the second half of the film seeming very jam-packed with stuff. There also seems to be too many characters to keep track of who go after the Rocketeer from Neville to Lothar to Eddie and his boys to the FBI, etc.
But having said that, it’s an enjoyable watch which is pretty much all a cult film needs to be. The action cinematography is wonderful for its time and Timothy Dalton gives an excellent performance. Alan Arkin pretty much plays himself and Jennifer Connelly and Billy Campbell are as good as their characters are written. Summing up, the film is a good cult film that could use a good remake, especially in this decade of superhero films!
So, the final score for this film is 29/35 = 82.86% (B-) !
The next review will be posted on May 22, 2018.