It’s easy to imagine any sane filmgoer becoming tired of super-hero films, particularly film critics who have an obligation to watch at least some of them. Yet here you are reading a review of “The Rocketeer,” the 1991 adaptation of the Dave Stevens graphic novel. In an era of critically acclaimed super-hero epics, what does the quaint and dated “The Rocketeer” have to offer?
After a shootout leaves their plane ruined and themselves broke, Cliff Sefford (Billy Cambpell) and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) stumble across a mysterious rocket engine left in their hanger by a dead mobster. Testing out the engine, they’re surprised to find it’s actually a jetpack and take advantage of their good fortune to make a little money. However, that won’t be easy with both the FBI and superstar actor Neville Sinclair’s (Timothy Dalton) henchmen after the device. Adopting the guise of The Rocketeer, Cliff sets off to protect his friends and his beloved Jenny (Jennifer Connely) from getting caught up in this chaotic war for the rocket.
It should be stated that “The Rocketeer” is little more than nostalgic action fun. That is all. It doesn’t try to be anything more, putting it’s energies into doing just that well. Besides the solid cinematography and special effects, it has an extremely tight script, with cliches being used at their finest and plot threads being interconnected fairly well. For example, Cliff’s character bit of gum chewing affects the plot at least three times over the course of the film. What really stands out, however, is the characters, being that there are some. While the main cast hits their rather flat marks well, the minor characters end up having the same amount of effort put behind them. The clever and charming dialogue leaves you with a sense of who each small character is, if not some attachment to them.
While the comic played up a nostalgia for both film serials and golden age comics, the movie emphasizes the serial aspect a lot more (for obvious reasons). It’s actually one of the few times an adaptation makes a lot of sense, since it’s a return to a form the original material is based on. That being said, “The Rocketeer” only feels like an old serial, having all the maturity of storytelling that modern films have. Thankfully so, as those old “Commander Cody” shorts are hard to watch at times.
What “The Rocketeer” has to offer is simplicity. There’s no epic CGI climax, no political commentary, and no questionable content in any way. It’s not dumb or manufactured, it simply concentrates on doing the little things well. I look at “The Rocketeer” and I see so many tropes and story similarities present in super-hero films nowadays, but somehow they work better here. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement that these things are cheesy and the humbleness of asking the audience to accept it, as compared to the assumption that the audience will accept it and presenting it flatly. “The Rocketeer” has no misconceptions of what it is and I think modern super-hero films have lost that. The makers have forgotten they’re filming silly little stories of men in tights, mistaking popularity for permission to relax. In a post-modern world you can’t present a simple good/evil story and expect a few jokes will make it clever. These stories aren’t new, we’ve been creating them for over 80 years or, according to “The Rocketeer,” at least 20 years.