The Rocketeer at 30: the glorious throwback flop that should have been a hit

Thirty years ago, The Rocketeer opened in third place at the US box office, well behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the juggernaut that had premiered the week before, and a little behind the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers, which was in its third week. It finished just ahead of Dying Young, but only because it was allotted more screens. The viewing public was genuinely torn between a crackerjack retro adventure about a jetpack-wearing superhero or a drippy, modern-day Love Story in which Julia Roberts falls in love with a terminally ill cancer patient. A humbler fate for this franchise non-starter could not have been imagined.

And yet, here is a 30th anniversary essay on The Rocketeer.

Related: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at 30: a joyless hit that should stay in the 90s

It’s clear now that an enthusiastic audience existed for this peculiar twist on superhero mythos, but the multiplex was already becoming an inhospitable place for movies without big stars or recognizable IP, even with the Disney machine behind them. Disney had snapped up the rights to Dave Stevens’ comic books shortly after they were published in the early 80s, shrewdly snuffing out the connection between The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, both rooted in old-fashioned adventure serials and both featuring heroes who unravel a dastardly Nazi plot. But Billy Campbell was not Harrison Ford, and the gorgeous marketing material, with its art deco vision of a gold-helmeted rocket man blasting to the heavens, was not enough of an enticement on its own.

For those who saw the film at the time – or, more likely, discovered it on video or cable down the line – The Rocketeer delivered exactly what the poster promised. That art deco sheen glistens all over Los Angeles in 1938, from the bandstand and mermaid pools of a mob-owned night club to the paint job on a Gee Bee Z racing aircraft to the jet-pack itself, with duel silver rockets pointing to the sky (and the future) like Babe Ruth calling his shot. In front of that Old Hollywood backdrop, the film is a model of Disney live-action, a wholesome all-ages spectacle that has a modesty and a silly sense of humor that’s more common to Disney’s past than its Marvel present. Its hero may be under fire by the Nazis, the mob, and the FBI, but he only wants to fly planes and get the girl. There are no larger burdens for him to carry.

Part of the fun of The Rocketeer – and perhaps a sticking point for audiences – is that our superhero isn’t all that super. Cliff Secord (Campbell) is a handsome, clean-cut, down-the-middle good guy who doesn’t have any special powers until he and Peevy (Alan Arkin), an airplane designer and mechanic, happen to discover the jet pack hidden the cockpit of a decommissioned plane. Even then, this miraculous machine, designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) to give humans the gift of flight, is a finicky contraption, with a start-and-stop button that abruptly catapults its pilot into the skies and just as abruptly sends him nosediving to the earth. Nazi propaganda envisions a rocket-powered army of soldiers soaring through the air in formation, like fascist geese, but the reality is far more graceless. Most of the time, Cliff’s acts of heroism are a combination of courage and haphazard derring-do, as he zips through the air like a birthday balloon that’s just been popped.

The Spielbergian touches in The Rocketeer come courtesy of the most Spielbergian director, Joe Johnston, who was part of the Oscar-winning visual effects team on Raiders of the Lost Ark before debuting with the Disney hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. His later contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger, feels like a return to the same historical playground as The Rocketeer, and with the same uncomplicated answer to the hero’s call. Working from a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Johnston delights in crafting an alternate history of Hollywoodland in the lead-up to the second world war, feeding a complicated plot through studio backlots, glamorous nightclubs, and an airstrip where hand-crafted biplanes seem barely a generation removed from the Wright Brothers.

Though real-life figures like Hughes, Clark Gable and a lascivious WC Fields make an appearance, the juiciest role in the film belongs to Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair, an Errol Flynn-like matinee star whose debonair swashbuckling masks a mustache-twirling malevolence. Just two years removed from his License to Kill, the second and last of his short run as James Bond, Dalton accesses the sense of humor he’d tabled in an effort to steer Bond away from the jokier Roger Moore version. Neville is in league with the Nazis, who have already thoroughly infiltrated the country, and he bosses around a mob kingpin (Paul Sorvino) and a giant henchman (Tiny Ron Taylor) who looks like a castaway from Disney similarly failed/excellent Dick Tracy from the year before. But he’s not an ideologue so much as a pompous, power-mad egomaniac, and Dalton leans zestfully into threats like, “Who are they going to believe? A cheap crook or the number-three box-office star in America?.

1991, Film Title: ROCKETEER, Director: JOE JOHNSTON, Studio: DISNEY, Pictured: ALAN ARKIN, WILLIAM CAMPBELL. (Credit Image: SNAP)F6HDC3 1991, Film Title: ROCKETEER, Director: JOE JOHNSTON, Studio: DISNEY, Pictured: ALAN ARKIN, WILLIAM CAMPBELL. (Credit Image: SNAP)
1991, Film Title: ROCKETEER, Director: JOE JOHNSTON, Studio: DISNEY, Pictured: ALAN ARKIN, WILLIAM CAMPBELL. (Credit Image: SNAP)F6HDC3 1991, Film Title: ROCKETEER, Director: JOE JOHNSTON, Studio: DISNEY, Pictured: ALAN ARKIN, WILLIAM CAMPBELL. (Credit Image: SNAP)

With Campbell as a conventional hero and a pre-fame Jennifer Connelly doing what she can with the damsel-in-distress role, The Rocketeer reserves its more colorful roles for an array of first-rate character actors. There’s Arkin with the Geppetto mustache, turning a modest airplane hangar into a workshop for engineering miracles; Sorvino as a gangster who evokes the volatility of Al Capone more than his dead-eyed boss from GoodFellas; and Jon Polito as an airstrip owner who will do anything for a buck, like reassuring a paying audience that the aerial chaos above them is “all part of the show.”

Steeped in references to the swashbucklers and women’s weepies of the 30s, to star-filled clubs like Cocoanut Grove, and to hubristic wonders like the Spruce Goose and the Hindenburg, The Rocketeer feels, in the best way, like a backlot tour of romanticized Hollywood. The action sequences are full of suspense and visual wit, especially the climactic showdown atop a Nazi blimp, but it’s memorable most as a time machine to a place that never existed, poised between cartoon history and silver-screen fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to pay it a visit?