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Film Review: The Rocketeer
In 1991, Joe Johnston and Walt Disney Pictures released The Rocketeer, based on the character of the same name created by comic book writer and artist Dave Stevens. Starring Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Terry O’Quinn, Paul Sorvino, and Tiny Ron Taylor, the film grossed $46.7 million at the box office. Nominated for the Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, losing both to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the film won the Saturn Award for Best Costumes. It was also nominated for the Saturn Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Special Effects.
Set in 198 Los Angeles, stunt pilot Cliff Secord discovers a jetpack that enables him to fly and his ensuing heroic deeds not only attract the attention of Howard Hughes, but the FBI and some Nazi operatives who want the pack back.
A comic book movie before comic book movies were wildly popular The Rocketeer is a pretty decent film with a fun story. Based off a comic that was an homage to 1930s pulp magazines, the film’s story is purely good vs. evil, with Cliff against Neville Sinclair, who an operative for the Nazis. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some interesting turns of events that happen, especially with the film’s portrayal of the mob. Throughout most of the film, they’re working with Sinclair trying to get the jetpack and don’t think anything about who they’re working for. But it’s interesting to see that when Cliff reveals that Neville is a Nazi to the mob, they turn on him because they may not be making honest livings, but they’re Americans. And in the ensuing battle, the mob works with the FBI and it shows that even to the lower dregs of the American criminal underworld, they’re the good guys when it comes to the Nazis. And back to the goodness of Cliff, it’s notable that what he really wants to do when he’s got Jenny back from Neville is to give the jetpack back to Howard Hughes and the FBI.
And that really goes into the character of Cliff. The film portrays him as the quintessential good American against the traitorous Neville. Cliff, who’s also an ace pilot, just wants to do the right thing, fight crime and win the love of his life. And his characterization as the good American seems to be a self-aware moment for the film because when he’s about to launch himself onto the zeppelin at the climax, there’s a big American flag right behind him. He even defeats Neville without really killing him, giving him a jetpack that has a hole in the fuel tank. Compare all this to Neville, a Nazi spy who has everyone else, from his giant henchman to the mob, do his dirty work for him. He’s initially seen as an actor that plays heroic characters but is quite nasty off screen. And at the reveal, it shows just how much the man can act and that he was able to fool everyone by thinking he was some great American when he really wanted America to fall at Hitler’s hands.
But even with the decent aspects of the film, there’s still some silly aspects to it that either fails to answer a question or just makes no sense. For one, there’s the exhaust flame that comes out of the jetpack. While it does have a cooling feature to keep it from exploding, that doesn’t answer why the flame doesn’t burn the legs of whoever is flying on it. There’s also the influx of Nazi commandos at the end, which is essentially an act of war and it was witnessed by the FBI. Combine that with a video that outlines the Nazi’s plan to invade America, it means that the United States should have recognized said act and decided to take part in World War II. Or maybe they decided to cover everything up to not get involved and decide to not reveal the existence of the rocket. Or maybe they decided to backwards engineer it and history takes a turn further down into alternate history with WWII jetpacks. That’s something that should be explored.
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