The setting of our story is Los Angeles, 1938. It's a time and place that allows for the marriage of a variety of themes: Hollywood in its Golden Age, mobsters and G-Men, the enigmatic Howard Hughes, and a Nazi plot that involves the Hindenberg dramatically descending upon Southern California. Our hero is Cliff Secord, played by Billy Campbell, an all-American daredevil with a heart of gold. The Rocketeer chronicles Cliff’s escapades after he and his friend “Peevy” Peadbody (Alan Arkin) discover a jet pack. Cliff must also defend his relationship with Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) from wicked movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton).
The movie opens with Cliff flying a Gee Bee airplane which he and Peevy have invested a lot of time and money into, in the hopes of racing her for profit. In a scene as dramatic as it is improbable, the plane is shot down by a mobster’s stray bullet, forcing Cliff to crash-land. As Cliff plummets back to earth, a chase between mobsters and F.B.I. agents has occurred on the ground, forcing the crooks to ditch a mysterious, stolen package in Peevy’s garage before they’re caught. The package is soon discovered by Cliff and Peevy, and naturally, it contains an incredible rocket pack – a little “expert” dialogue from Peevy lets us know that it apparently runs on alcohol, and is designed to stay cool “by quickly dissipating the heat of combustion”.
Whatevs, figures Cliff. Now that the plane is busted up, they need a new way to make money, fast, and he decides the best way to make money is to sign up as a “flying man” in a local airshow. Before the young punk can do anything foolish, Peevy slaps together an incredible, Art Deco-style helmet for him. Thus, The Rocketeer is born.
Other than the rocket, the other major force in Cliff's existence is a totally bodacious girlfriend named Jenny, a struggling actress with a heart of gold. Jenny’s character manages to embody all that sexy aesthetic stuff that people love about Bettie Page, while remaining totally wholesome and charming, and ultimately heroic. Rarely are adventure movie babes so totally attractive, but truly, Jenny is the whole package. Even W.C. Fields makes a cameo for the sake of hitting on her, and who can blame him?
While Cliff is busy crashing planes and stuff, Jenny gets her break as an extra in a big Hollywood production starring swashbuckling actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, in a parody of 1930s cinema idol Errol Flynn). Everything seems peachy until tragedy strikes: Jenny is banned from the set when Cliff shows up and ruins a shot by accidentally knocking over a castle wall. She's crushed, and dumps Cliff on the spot when he fails to understand what a blow this is for her, but she's quickly called back by Sinclair once he catches on wind of Cliff's rocket pack. To no one's surprise, Neville Sinclair turns out to be a Nazi agent who wants to get his hands on the rocket pack. Herr Sinclair gets busy working the movie star charm on Jenny in his quest to make rocket-propelled Nazi supermen a reality. One of the movie’s most entertaining scenes involves a screening, by famous aviator Howard Hughes, of a top-secret animated film from Germany that features Nazi Rocketeers flying high above a burning Capitol dome.
Leonard Maltin’s definitive book, “The Disney Films,” offers only a single sentence of information on The Rocketeer. His only observation is that “it was handsomely made, but ultimately, a disappointment.” Like Dick Tracy before it, there aren’t any children in the film, and the story itself isn’t very childlike, or even very Disney-like. Unlike Dick Tracy, it's actually a good movie, and I would watch it again. Nay-sayers like Leonard Maltin aside: The Rocketeer is a great action-adventure movie, and I love it. The story, the acting, and the execution puts it in a class with other wildly ambitious films like Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong - even if it was a commercial disappointment at the time of its release. If I must make criticism here, I will say that there is an excess of story and characters, and that makes it hard to summarize without revealing any of the movie’s surprises.
The DVD transfer for this film is fine, but as usual, there's no special features, except for a squashed-looking theatrical trailer that wasn't properly re-sized for television. Also, the trailer sucks so badly that it's no wonder this movie bombed in the theaters.