Saturday, September 29, 2012

In short: The Rocketeer (1991)

This comic-based homage to serials, pulp and the late 30s (or rather, to the pop cultural ideal of what that time was all about), is about the only Disney film produced in the 90s I'm willing to watch repeatedly.

Our hero of the day is a slightly hapless but pure-hearted air race pilot named Cliff (Billy Campbell), who stumbles upon an experimental rocket-pack (that's a 1930's jetpack, bub), and decides to use it for a bit of peaceful monetary gain, but of course turns into a hero called the Rocketeer during the course of the movie. There are various factions looking for the rocket-pack - its inventor Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) and his FBI goons, a group of Mafiosi lead by Paul Sorvino working for British Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who of course harbours a dark secret, and the faction Sinclair is working for.

Soon enough, Cliff and his fatherly mechanic friend Peevy (Alan Arkin) are on the run from everyone, Cliff's girlfriend, the aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is kinda pissed at him and threatened by the romantic talents of Sinclair, the Nazis (you didn't expect them not to be in the movie, right?) are being nefarious, a zeppelin makes an appearance, and the course of history rests on Cliff's shoulders.

The Rocketeer is director Joe Johnston's training ground for the same sort of mood he'd later - after quite a few utterly dreadful movies - so successfully create in Captain America. I don't think it's quite as great a film as that later one - it gets a bit too nostalgic from time to time when it does things like cast Howard Hughes (even if he's as sympathetically played as here by O'Quinn, whom I'm certainly not going to tell what he can't do) as a combination of the real Hughes, a good mad scientist, and Father Christmas, is perhaps a bit too Saturday matinee harmless, and is not always as funny as it thinks it is.

On the other hand, more often than not, The Rocketeer's idealized pulp version of the world is just plain fun to watch, sending a semi-bumbling hero from one contrived situation into the next, with the mandatory daring escapes, threats to innocent people and kidnappings of girlfriends.The film also gives a very fine cast opportunities to chew scenery in various attractive and entertaining ways. Especially O'Quinn, Arkin, Dalton and Sorvino's teddybear-ish mafia boss are just great fun to watch, while Campbell is as bland as one expects of the hero in this sort of thin. And then there's Jennifer Connelly, who is not just being young Jennifer Connelly but also clearly having fun with a character that is neither as superficial, nor as incompetent, nor as helpless as pulp tradition and the expectations of her surroundings prescribe, and seems to revel in that, as do I.

It makes me quite nostalgic for the times when this film's co-writer Danny Bilson wasn't a suit in videogame companies, but working as excellent writer of films in a pulp mode, like this one, Trancers or the wonderful "Sergeant Rock and aliens versus Nazis" movie Zone Trooper.

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