“How about… The Rocketeer?”
Back in 1972 Elton John pushed himself to the top of the charts atop the hit song Rocket Man, who was burning out his fuse up here alone. Well, it wasn’t going to be a very long long time before Disney and company gave us a Rocket Man in their family drama/comedy The Rocketeer. It was the first day of summer in 1991 when The Rocketeer first appeared. The box office was moderate, but it had seemed like he disappeared from the scene for a long long time. He’s found again, and you can now see him in high definition with this 20th anniversary Blu-ray release.
Cliff (Campbell) is a test pilot in the days leading up to World War II. He’s flying racing planes, and his team has spent three years on the beauty he’s about to test now. The flight is going well until he happens to fly over a car chase between the feds and some hoods. Machine guns are bursting between the cars, and the crooks decide there are enough leftover bullets to throw some Cliff’s way. The plane is damaged, but Cliff gets himself safely back on the ground.
So what was all of the shooting about? Cliff and his partner Peevy (Arkin) discover that they’ve hidden a jet or rocket pack inside one of their old planes. The two begin to experiment with the rocket, but there are a lot of folks who want to get their hands on the toy, including its creator Howard Hughes. Cliff and his team must deal with feds, mob guys, an Errol Flynn-style movie star, and a tough monster of a man that looks just like old classic monster movie star Rondo Hatton. Some zany comic book action is the result.
The film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Dave Stevens. The film was an attempt to provide some classic comic book elements with a period piece. It’s interesting that it was directed by Joe Johnston who recently explored much of the same comic book World War II era environments with Captain America: The First Avenger. You can absolutely see some of the same nuances in that recent film here in The Rocketeer. Of course we’re talking 20 years of improved technology, a huge budget difference, and a built-in audience hungry for the buildup to The Avengers. But this effort is certainly worth a look, if you can avoid any attempt to take it very seriously.
The strength of this film isn’t in any special effects or even the story adaptation. The heart of this movie is in the exceptional cast. While Bill Campbell is a little flat in the title role, he doesn’t have to really act very much. It’s about poses and stilted dialog. You get a little Greatest American Hero vibe, as Cliff doesn’t really have full control of the device. It’s that imperfect character that allows all of the zany action to work. We’re getting a ton of the finely-polished hero of late, and this kind of film might appear too frivolous or out of date to a modern audience. That’s a shame, because there’s something to be said for charm.
The rest of the cast throws a ton of wit and charm into the mix. It starts with Timothy Dalton, giving the most eccentric performance of his career as the actor Neville Sinclair. He’s got a bit of Adam West and William Shatner in there. He’s an actor who has taken his image way too far. Alan Arkin is almost unrecognizable as the team chief Peevy. He looks more the college professor and works a bit against type. Here’s he more the straight man. Paul Sorvino takes every bit of advantage of his mob boss image he perfected in Good Fellas. But he’s a patriotic mobster. Terry O’Quinn looks so young to us now in the role of Howard Hughes. It’s actually a small role for the Lost alumni. Jennifer Connelly works the whole damsel-in-distress thing and does get a few moments to shine. Jon Polito is quite entertaining as the air show promoter who ends up getting too deep into the caper. There’s even a small role for William Sanderson. who we first got to know on Newhart with his two brothers named Daryl and lately as the Sherriff on True Blood. It’s a rather charming cast, and Johnston does a good job of letting them go with the flow. I get the impression there’s a good bit of improv going on, and everybody appears to be having fun.
When you watch the film you’ll be somewhat reminded of the Indiana Jones films. That’s not surprising. Johnston worked on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and has spent time working with both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. James Horner delivers a score that seems half Raiders Of The Lost Ark and half his own The Wrath Of Khan. You get a lot of that light-hearted action and adventure here. Unfortunately, the playful mood and action forces comparisons to those kind of films, and it just isn’t going to live up. You can tell that Johnston loves that kind of film, and it shows in every frame.
The Rocketeer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. The high-definition image presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. There are a lot of moments where the picture is quite soft. Colors don’t really pop, and the whole thing looks like someone used too much color correction. There are other moments, particularly during well-lit sunny exteriors where detail and color really pop. The yellow in Cliff’s first plane is a wonderful example of fine color. Black levels are marred by the presence of a bit of digital noise. It looks like it’s an older film than 20 years.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also a touch disappointing. You might hope for some nice sub action during the rocket-pack scenes but they really do fall a bit flat. The dialog is fine. The audio presentation comes alive most of all with the James Horner score. There are moments when the rousing score comes very much to life and lifts the entire audio experience.
Yes, it’s a lot of fun. But the film itself never really rises to that classic Disney status. It appears like a film that can’t quite find the right audience and has dipped into obscurity over the years. It’s certainly worth a look on this new Blu-ray release, particularly if you’re looking for something to offset the super serious mood of today’s comic movies…”Rocketeer to the rescue”.