Junkfood Cinema: The Rocketeer

By  · Published on April 16th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; over two dozen served. If you love great movies that challenge your ways of thinking and speak to the complexity of the human condition…we’ve got columns for that too. But here at the ever-stagnating Junkfood Cinema Corporation, our goal is to showcase the films that will probably never experience the prestige of an AFI Top 100 list. These films suffer from problems both of craft and of influence (usually by the decade in which they were made) but nevertheless amount to an undeniably enjoyable evening. Our intention is to expand so-bad-it’s-good into the more irresponsible realm of so-bad-it’s-fattening by offering up movie-related junkfood to complete the film-watching experience. This month’s theme is lesser superhero films and today’s is a real treat: The Rocketeer!

First of all, I would like to thank Kevin Kelly for subbing for me last week and doing a phenomenal job with The Shadow. Thank you for proving emphatically that I am clearly the wrong man for this job. As to The Rocketeer, it’s about a floundering pilot who finds a secret military weapon. The weapon is a jetpack that, when strapped to a person’s back, allows them to fly. The pilot sees this as just the ticket to breathe life back into the air racing business he runs with his friend Peevy. Unfortunately, the men responsible for the initial theft of the jetpack have more devious intentions and will kill to retrieve it.

What Makes It Bad?

The Rocketeer is all kinds of contrived. It is set in 1938 and it hammers us over the head with that fact until we bleed newsreel footage. The gangsters are something out of a Raymond Chandler nightmare and their lingo would make a Newsie grimace. The worst is actually the Feds who engage in a back-and-forth of pre-war slang that even James Cagney would call obnoxious. But my favorite has to be the conviction Cliff demonstrates that Adolph Hitler is a major threat to America even in 1938. Clearly he is not wrong, but when the newsreel is professing to the amiable relationship between America and Germany, it seems a little too hindsight-y for this half-witted jock to possess such wisdom.

There is a marked measure of silliness to the film. It is a family film, so it’s entirely understandable. During Cliff’s early exploits with the rocket, he is expectantly unskilled in his flight. But something about his saluting an airliner full of flummoxed passengers, accidentally switching off the engine, and falling out of the sky borders on insufferable. The inherent drinking game in this film (a favorite recurring theme) would be to take a drink every time Alan Arkin gets too close to Cliff as he’s taking off and ends up on his ass. It doesn’t help that the computer-generated flying effects are as dated as the music in the film; only one of those being intentional.

Like so many of the lesser superhero films of the 1990’s, The Rocketeer’s principle problem is its star. Billy Campbell plays Cliff, our unflappable flyboy, with a distinct lack of awareness of what it means to be an actor. He is thick as molasses and his only marketable skill is throwing a punch. Every actor has a lead; a gait that allows for one part of their body to enter the frame before the rest of them. Often it can be indicative of what type of person that character-you know what, I’m boring myself. Billy Campbell is an actor who leads with his bangs; the golden locks a veritable fanfare for his entrance into any scene. The unfortunate part is that those bangs tend to exhibit more talent than the rest of this beef-headed goof. Apparently Campbell and Skeet Ulrich were in the same class at the Supercuts School of Acting.

The only thing about The Rocketeer that parallels the cheesiness of its hero is its villain. Imagine the terror that would grip your senses if you were forced to battle the immensely intimidating…Timothy Dalton! I don’t know about you, but I would want to match neither wits nor steel with the star of Beautician and the Beast; he was the beast! He plays a fanciful actor by day who is an evil Nazi conspirator by night. Because when I think of the most wretched of Nazi collaborators, I think of Timothy Dalton. He is so smug throughout the entire film; almost as if he knows he’s better than the role and throws his performance into autopilot. What’s funny to me is the in-joke that his character is an over-rated actor but in the scenes of him shooting a film, his performance is no less hammy than the scenes of him off set. In other words, he’s playing a bad actor badly.

Why I Love It!

As goofy as it is, I find The Rocketeer incredibly charming. It’s sort of a throwback to the days when Disney produced action films by the truckload: 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The Black Hole, and Treasure Island. These were action films that offered fans something other than the constant stream of animation for which the company is now known. They were high adventure and, more often than not, had fantastic production values. The Rocketeer is no exception as its 1930’s setting provides endless arrays of art deco buildings and elaborately-themed night clubs and restaurants. There are fight sequences atop zeppelins, biplane dog fights, and plenty of Tommy gun fire to satiate the action fans even if its instance of period status does get a little tiresome.

When I was a kid, I was given a VHS of a 1950’s serial called Commando Cody. I remember cheering as this hero strapped a rocket to his back and took flight! Turns out, this film is based on a comic book series from the 1980’s that was itself inspired by Commando Cody and a number of pulp magazine heroes. The Rocketeer movie is sort of a glorious amalgamation of a number of incredibly cool sources which accounts for its incessantly watchable status. I would love to read the comic book to see if, given its pulp novel inspiration, the character is given some darker material to work with than a Disney film would ever allow. To Disney’s credit, there is some pretty sinister stuff in The Rocketeer; a man gets broken in half and there is footage of Washington, D.C. ablaze. It also offers the showdown between mafioso and Nazis for witch the world has been patiently waiting.

If you recall our junkfooditization of The Phantom, you’ll remember how much I fawned over Catherine Zeta-Jones and how she never again looked as stunning as she did in that film. In The Rocketeer, we are treated to another early performance from another future Oscar winner: Jennifer Connelly. In a bold piece of stunt casting, she plays an actress who falls for dangerous but irresistible(?) charm of Timothy Dalton. She is shapely and perfectly fills those classic-style dresses. She may have won an Academy Award in 2002, but she is showing off her Golden Globes in this film. Her eyes are captivating to no end and if ever there were a more kissable pair of lips…wait, is my wife reading this?

Package this all together when some legitimately badass hero costuming and you’ve got yourself a film. I think Arkin’s line about him looking like a hood ornament is quite apt, but I still find myself considering going as the Rocketeer for Halloween. I also dig the hell out of casting Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes and for the inclusion of Hughes into the script as the inventor of the jetpack. If that is something from the comics, thank goodness it made its way into the film; if not, damn clever screenwriting. Oh, and if you find yourself remembering fondly the music in The Rocketeer, that’s because it was written by James “Battle Beyond the Stars” Horner. I love this score and find it a little more distinct than the one he wrote for BBTS that ended up getting ported to nine other films.

Junkfood Pairing: Rocket Pops

I must have watched The Rocketeer 1,000 times as a kid and the majority of those viewings would inevitably cluster into the summer months. So yes, the on-the-nose moniker of this frozen treat is no accident, but it also reminds me of just how much of my life was spent watching cheesy Disney films and eating ice cream.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.