I take a look at a movie I loved from my childhood that wasn’t quite right for its time period.
Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is a pilot in 1938. While testing a new plane, he accidentally encounters a car chase between the FBI and the mobsters of Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gang, resulting in the plane being hit by gunfire and crashing. When he and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) return to their hangar, they discover that one of the mobsters hid their loot there: A prototype jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). It turns out that the mobsters had been hired by swashbuckling film star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who sends his giant henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) to find the missing rocket. By coincidence, Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is set to be a bit part in Sinclair’s next film. When Cliff, apologizing for a recent fight, comes to talk to her, Sinclair overhears him mention the rocket.
At a local air show, Cliff uses the rocket pack and a finned helmet designed by Peevy to rescue another pilot, leading the press to dub him “The Rocketeer.” However, this alerts Sinclair, the FBI, Hughes, and the Mob that the rocket has been found. Lothar kills Cliff’s employer Otis Bigelow (Jon Polito) and attacks Cliff and Peevy. The FBI arrives and drives Lothar off, but Lothar steals Peevy’s schematics for the rocket. Cliff and Peevy try to hide at a diner, but the mobsters find the pair. They discover that Sinclair is taking Jenny to dinner and leave to attack the pair, with Cliff following by rocket. However, the rocket was damaged, so Peevy patches it with a piece of Cliff’s lucky gum.
Cliff tries to get Jenny away from Sinclair, but the Mob arrives and Sinclair kidnaps her. At his home, Jenny discovers that Sinclair is actually a Nazi sleeper agent. The FBI pick up Cliff and Peevy and introduce them to Hughes, who informs the pair that the Nazis have plans to build an army of jetpacks, but have so far been unable to develop a successful prototype. Hughes demands the rocket back, but Cliff escapes and confronts Sinclair and the Mob. However, Sinclair is surprised when Valentine and his goons immediately switch sides due to their patriotism. German forces surround the group, but the FBI arrives and the combined forces of the mafia and the Feds drive Sinclair onto a Nazi blimp. Cliff flies to the blimp and fights the Nazis. Ultimately, he rigs the rocket to explode by removing the gum after handing it over to Sinclair. Sinclair explodes, destroying the LAND from the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, and Jenny and Cliff are saved by Peevy and Hughes. Later, Peevy finds his blueprints and decides that he could build another rocket pack.
This one was picked by one of my cousins (the one I’m closest to), because my brother could not be trusted to give a suggestion that wasn’t “Debbie Does Dallas” (which he suggested 3 times). I could have asked my sister, but as she was slightly older than me, we didn’t watch a lot of movies together. Also, I already did Dirty Dancing. When we were little, my cousin and I would watch this film all the time and it’s still one of my favorite memories, so I think this was appropriate for the category. The only movie that was more appropriate was already selected for later this week.
This film is the pinnacle of “should have worked.” When I rewatched it for this challenge and tried to be a little more objective, I realized that there were definitely flaws in the movie, but not enough that it should have been the “flop” that Disney seemed to judge it to be. I think it’s less to do with the movie and more to do with when it was released. See, this movie came out in 1991, shortly after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze came out and the week after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. This means that the little kids had a movie they’d rather see (this was the height of Turtlemania) and the older kids had a movie they’d rather see. This movie was not quite as lighthearted as the former, nor as dark as the latter, and not attached to an existing property like either one of those.
The strange thing is that the tone of this film is very similar to the tone of the early Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. It has a number of legitimately dark moments, usually involving Lothar and his tendency to mangle people, but largely has a hefty dose of quippy comedy lines combined with some slapstick to keep it light. Add in the 1930s setting and the Nazi enemies and the film actually feels pretty similar to Captain America: The First Avenger mixed with the classic Pulp Serials of the 1930s. Given that The First Avenger was directed by the same person that made this movie, that really is understandable. It’s definitely a popcorn movie, even compared to the MCU, but it’s still a fun film if you’re willing to just enjoy the camp.
Cliff is a likable protagonist, although he tends to suffer a bit due to his blandness. While I know people probably blame Billy Campbell for that, it’s more the fact that his character is a little too good at times. Yes, he’s a little selfish and forgettable, but he always has an “aw, shucks” aspect that keeps him pretty monotone. Jennifer Connelly’s role is similar, and she suffers a little bit of damsel syndrome, lacking almost any active control over her story arc. Alan Arkin’s Peevy is a memorable part of the movie and he’s such a good actor that he manages to perfectly blend the comic relief, tech genius, and elderly mentor roles into one solid character. However, I think the most notable part of the film is Timothy Dalton. Dalton absolutely chews the scenery in the best way possible as a pastiche of Errol Flynn, but then, when his actual allegiances are present, he starts being the over-the-top mustache-twirling Nazi you want in a movie.
The special effects in the film haven’t aged great, but they don’t take you out of the movie. Some of the uses of the rocket are pretty clever and they make for great sight gags. The backgrounds and sets in the movie all seem a little intentionally cheap as a tribute to old-school films, but they’re still stylistically appropriate.
There are a few flaws in the movie, though. First, some of the jokes or the killings are a little more “adult” than the rest of the movie. Not that they’d be out of place in most modern superhero films, but for this time period they were not typical. Second, the film is a bit too long. It’s 108 minutes and, honestly, has a bit too much exposition. It should really be cut down to around 90 minutes.
Overall, though, this movie was really solid and maybe even a little ahead of its time. If you didn’t watch it when you were a kid, you should watch it now.
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