The Rocketeer isn’t bad, but the movie’s light-touch Disney treatment is full of “aw, shucks” innocence when it really needs some “oh wow” mojo.
Hollywood und Nein
Based on Dave Stevens’ graphic novel (Stevens also co-produced the movie), The Rocketeer is set in 1938 Los Angeles, a time when the country is torn apart domestically by gangsters and while the Nazi threat rises abroad.
The Nazis want Howard Hughes’ new, high-tech rocket pack and they’re willing to kill for it (gasp!). To aid and abet their cause, the Nazis have infiltrated Hollywood and hired gangland stooges to do some dirty work.
It’s a concept that promises all sorts of wiz-bang, Indiana Jones-style action, but the entertainment value doesn’t really come from the cartoonish action. Instead, it’s a simple kind of timepiece fun culled from brief cameos by characters such as W.C. Fields and Clark Gable.
The heart of the movie is more in the humor than the action. There’s Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights) attempting to seduce Jenny (Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth and Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind 11 years after The Rocketeer) by quoting seductive lines from his own movies. Another nice little moment finds Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn, Tombstone and given a larger audience on TV’s Lost 13 years after The Rocketeer) being inspired to continue his pursuit of the Spruce Goose thanks to the antics of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell, Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
In the kitchen sink department, there’s even an unlikely explanation as to how the Hollywoodland sign was abbreviated to Hollywood.
Back to the Future
Back then, James Horner was a great film score composer who brought a fresh sound to orchestral arrangements. Timothy Dalton was a dashing leading man who starred in two James Bond films (one great, one awful).
With The Rocketeer, Horner unloaded a score that sounded far too much like a knock-off of Randy Newman’s perfect pitch for The Natural (1984) when Horner wasn’t otherwise knocking off Horner’s own previous works, most notably Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Krull. And Timothy Dalton, perhaps still stinging from the debacle of Licence to Kill, seemed to settle into a niche of supporting roles that discounted his own leading man qualities.
Comic book movies were reliably inconsistent, leaning toward consistently unreliable. Aside from Superman: The Movie and Batman, up until then comic book movies more often than not were still treated like live action cartoons. And subsequent to them, ghastly sequels like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman and Robin would destroy public confidence in the handling of even the huge franchises.
Somewhat ironically, a super lousy Captain America movie was unleashed in 1990, emblematic of Hollywood’s struggle to learn how to adapt comic books to the big screen. The overwhelming popularity comic books now enjoy in the cinema (misguided treatments like Fantastic Four notwithstanding) wasn’t attained with any degree of regularity until Sam Raimi tackled Spider-Man in 2002 and Christopher Nolan retooled Batman in 2005.
In some respects, The Rocketeer’s strategy seems to angle more for the Back to the Future amiable crowd-pleaser approach than truly action-driven fare like Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s an approach that works fairly well, but at a price.
Raiders of the Lost Ark played off the Nazis by making them sinister and relentless. In The Rocketeer, their threat is buried under a cartoonish style of gangster antics that call to mind Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (a 1990 Disney release under the Touchstone shingle). The horribly executed makeup on the caricature villain Lothar in particular is enough to make The Rocketeer feel more like a sibling to Beatty’s Tracy than a stepson to Raiders.
The shame of it is there’s some real history embedded within The Rocketeer that could’ve easily elevated the movie above the fray of the era’s comic book misfires, including that 1990 Captain America. Those cameos by W.C. Fields and Clark Gable are merely disposable bits. There’s also news reel footage of the Nazis and Hitler that could help set the table for a more menacing tone. As for Howard Hughes, he is an integral part of the story, but there’s no real gravitas given to his efforts.
Perhaps the movie’s best moment, one that signals a certain amount of visionary ambition, is an animated Nazi propaganda film about a new beginning thanks to a new breed of soldier. It’s a black-and-white piece that shows the rise of the Nazi army brandishing rocket packs, taking over Germany before taking over the world.
That should’ve been a jumping-off point for some fantastic action sequences, but the material is tamped down and treated with kid gloves to the point where it feels like nothing is really at stake. A sense of jeopardy is never credibly created.
All of that aside, The Rocketeer isn’t a total loss. Jennifer Connelly’s gams got some more screen time and director Joe Johnston was able to cut his teeth on the movie, with bigger and better opportunities coming in the years ahead.
There is but one. The original theatrical trailer is included and it’s presented with such gorgeous quality it looks and sounds like it was transferred from a Super 8 copy via a telecine adapter in Goofy’s basement. In other words, it sucks.
There’s also an “Info” option listed under the Bonus Features menu. It’s an absolutely irrelevant, unnecessary bit of legalese that announces the views expressed in the commentary tracks and interviews contained on the disc are not necessarily those of Walt Disney Productions, yadda yadda yadda.
It’s extremely disappointing Disney chose to release The Rocketeer as a bare bones edition, particularly given the film’s two decades and Joe Johnston’s subsequent success as a director (Jurassic Park 3, Captain America). At the very least, a retrospective featurette catching up with Johnston, Connelly, Campbell, O’Quinn and other production personnel would’ve been nice.
There’s also nothing special about the packaging, aside from a two-color sticker on the plastic wrap proclaiming “From the Director of Captain America: The First Avenger.”
The release feels more like a (cheap) attempt by Disney to cash in on Captain America’s success than celebrate 20 years of Rocketeer, at the very tippy-toe tail end of its 20th year.
What’s even more surprising is the lack of cross-promotional filler. Disney didn’t even bother to include the usual slew of trailers for upcoming feature film and home video releases.
Picture and Sound
While Disney missed the mark – didn’t even attempt to aim, actually – when it comes to supplements, the movie’s digital restoration is well done. That’s not to say this is showcase material. Hardly. But, for a rather neglected comic book movie, this 1991 feature film is looking great and sounding good.
Presented in glorious widescreen 2.35:1, the image enjoys new life on Blu-ray. It’s an excellent transfer with a nice, sharp, pristine picture. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is mostly front-heavy and at times definitely reveals the age of the source material, but it’s certainly far, far better than the shoddy theatrical trailer included as the disc’s sole “bonus feature.”
Audio is also available in French 2.0 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired and French.
How to Use This Disc
Watch the movie. Enjoy the Captain America sticker. Skip the trailer.