Here’s a pair of Letterboxd reviews for movies that I happened to see this week without any prior intention of comparing them: Deadpool (link) and The Rocketeer (link). The fact that each review closes with the same sentiment took me by surprise. It’s hard to imagine two films that are more different in their approaches to comic book fantasy. I don’t want half of this piece to be about Deadpool, but suffice it to say that one movie is dominated by sarcasm and the other by sincerity. If we grant the point that these movies are for kids, and for boys in particular, then one is for bad boys and the other is for good boys. I find it easy to nod along to charges of immaturity against Deadpool, but The Rocketeer is a movie I’ve always loved. For close to a decade now, that love has been tempered by the fear that it might be time to grow out of this movie. There is a pocket of appreciation for it on the internet, but that can be said about almost anything. At the end of the day, the movie still works for me on a sensory level, which has something to do with nostalgia but can’t be entirely explained by it.
Before anything happens, as the studio titles play over a black screen, the movie immediately reveals its greatest asset: the late James Horner’s score. This was before the composer started facing criticism for repeating himself with his music. Throughout the 1980s, Horner had composed memorable scores for fantasy films, Star Trek movies, and Don Bluth’s animated features. That work fed into the score for The Rocketeer without making the latter seem at all derivative. It’s a strongly emotional, rousing theme whether it’s played on the piano or on strings. The music bespeaks serious, history-making adventure. This is the bedrock for the utter sincerity with which the movie tells its tale of a pilot who uses a jet pack to stop the Nazis from invading America.
The Nazi threat is mostly saved for the final third of the film, with the only foreshadowing coming from a newsreel that introduces the German zeppelin that will figure heavily in the climax. War films are the last of several genres that the movie invokes with heedless glee. First, The Rocketeer introduces Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), the brash young pilot with dreams of making it big by flying in the nationals — classic inspirational Disney stuff. The preparations and takeoff for a test flight happen as the credits run, establishing the joy and freedom of taking to the skies. Then, out of nowhere, a gangster movie breaks out. This is how the rocket pack ends up in Cliff’s hands, of course, as he gets thrust into the middle of a side conflict between the hoods and some FBI agents. The piercing percussion of the tommy gun is another of the film’s sensory delights, deployed with the kind of abandon that I still haven’t seen in much else. (The PG rating, naturally, dictated that the bullets could fly everywhere without hitting anyone notable.) Having Paul Sorvino and Jon Polito in the cast goes a long way toward making that stuff credible.
All of the genre play in The Rocketeer is intended as an evocation of the 1930s as that decade has been mythologized through movies. So, in the film’s most self-aware moment, the camera is turned on 1930s Hollywood itself. Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is an aspiring actress who’s having just as much trouble finding success as he is. He’s a little chauvinistic in his reluctance to support her, although the amount of time required on set just to be an extra might be frustrating for anyone. Her dubious big break comes when she gets a job on the new Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) swashbuckler. The debonair British movie star, modeled on Errol Flynn, ends up being a Nazi spy who uses Jenny to get the rocket from Cliff. This is where the movie makes its most interesting, and also its most questionable, moves.
I’ve gone back and forth on Dalton’s performance over the years. Ultimately, the broadness of his villainy is probably more of an asset than a liability. His variation on the “evil laugh” is more or less definitive, to my mind at least. As a character trope, “the duplicitous actor” is a little hackneyed, but the movie has fun with Sinclair’s inability to say or do anything original — always quoting his own films. One early example, which I had never noticed before this latest viewing, comes when Sinclair picks the boutonniere off of Eddie Valentine’s (Sorvino) coat with his sword and flicks it away. He later does the same trick in the movie he’s currently shooting.
Jenny, the movie establishes early on, is a big fan of Sinclair’s work, so she picks up on the references very quickly. Here’s the questionable part. Sinclair tries to seduce Jenny so he can get closer to the rocket. She goes out with him only because he’s a huge movie star who seems willing to help her get better roles. It’s never suggested that she’s so angry with Cliff over his past dishonesty that she’d seriously consider infidelity. What is suggested is that she needs to be disillusioned with Sinclair, that her fandom is somehow misguided. This is the one place where the film’s simplistic approach to its subject feels like a flaw. On the other hand, the storytelling decision to make Jenny the princess locked in the tower leads to my favorite transition in the film — the dissolve that connects the outline of the California mountains to the outline of the silk pillowcases at Sinclair’s pad.
As a paean to powered flight, The Rocketeer is just as naive and heartfelt as one could ever hope. Cliff’s efforts to master the use of the rocket pack — first disoriented, then thrilled by the machine’s power — are entirely believable. The arrival of his alter ego mostly follows the template of 1978’s Superman, with the dramatic rescue leading into an aerial reverie as the hero enjoys and tests his new abilities. Director Joe Johnston has a consistent grasp on how to make this material affecting. His use of shadow play is a nice recurring touch. The most memorable example is the fearful approach of the hulking minion Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor), but the film-within-the-film makes an explicit reference to the shadowy sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood, as well. The Rocketeer takes its place in the post-Raiders of the Lost Ark world of adventure cinema. It’s an unassuming entry, its prickliest element being the comic relief of Alan Arkin as Cliff’s mechanic friend Peevy. But it’s still very enjoyable to go back to this film whenever the attitudes, violence, and insistent “relevance” of later comic book movies get a little exhausting. The other reason I’m cautious in my appreciation for this film is that if its stature as a cult favorite gets too large, then the words “sequel” and “remake” will be invoked like some ancient curse. A new film wouldn’t be the end of the world, of course, but it would be annoying. Sometimes it’s okay for things to be left in the past.