As mentioned in my review of Eddie the Eagle, growing up as part of the Millennial generation in suburban Wisconsin afforded me numerous opportunities to experience film and television events of the period one can only appreciate if they're of a certain age. Such experiences have, in many instances, permanently affixed themselves to the part of my cerebral cortex reserved for the best of the best, an area currently occupied by Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, their numerous toy/television/cereal spin-offs and many, many boxes of strawberry Fruit by the Foot.
It is in this very special place one will find The Rocketeer.
Released in 1991, The Rocketeer was Disney's early attempt to kill two birds with one stone-nearly two decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked into high gear, Disney had high hopes that The Rocketeer would serve as both a successful adaptation of Dave Stevens' nostalgic comic while at the same time launching a series of films in the same vein as Indiana Jones. On paper, everything looked great-handsome leading man played by Billy Campbell, beautiful leading woman played by Jennifer Connelly, a former James Bond playing the villain, director Joe Johnston fresh off of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, soundtrack by the legendary James Horner...how could they possibly lose?
Unfortunately, The Rocketeer met with decidedly mixed reviews upon release and produced underwhelming box office receipts, not enough to warrant further sequels, a TV series or even a line of Rocketeer-themed thermal underwear. As a result, the film quietly entered the home video market and soon faded into semi-obscurity before eventually finding a cult following comprised of the now-adult children who saw The Rocketeer grace the silver screen so many years before.
As one of those people, I'm not shy in expressing my love for this film, an exciting adventure that captures everything I love about movies right down to the font used in the title. The premise is simple-an experimental wearable jet pack finds its way into the hands of Cliff Secord, a test pilot in late 1930s Los Angeles, who immediately sees an opportunity for fame and fortune thanks to the high-flying device. Unfortunately, the FBI, the mob, and a mysterious third party all want it for themselves, and before long Cliff, his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) and actress-girlfriend Jenny (Connelly) find themselves in the middle of a dangerous game in which the winner gets the ultimate prize and the loser might not make it out alive.
This is adventure storytelling firing on all cylinders, propelled by earnest performances from the entire cast (including Terry O'Quinn with an effortless portrayal of Howard Hughes) and arguably some of the late James Horner's finest work as a composer. The incidental music he created helps move the action along, while at the same time giving the low-key moments an air of sentimentality. Joe Johnston’s direction combined with Hiro Narita’s impressive cinematography give the film a sense of innocence, melancholy and even a slight sense of longing for an era gone by. It is these components, along with the tried-and-true story of a hero in the making, that transcend The Rocketeer from a run-of-the-mill superhero film into something much, much more.
Some movies fail to make the transition from a childhood favorite to an adulthood classic, but for me The Rocketeer will never be one of them. A viewing of this film immediately brings to mind memories of running around my backyard wearing a modified backpack and helmet, pretending to soar amongst the clouds like my filmic idol. I thank The Rocketeer for that, and for everything else it represents-quality filmmaking, outstanding acting, an excellent score and a movie I’ll always cherish.