Thirty Years Later The Rocketeer Is Still Underappreciated

The Rocketeer soared into theaters on this date 30 years ago and crashed harder than Cliff Secord’s Gee Bee racer. Despite high production values, a solid marketing campaign selling the promise of Indiana Jones-sized adventure — replete with pre-WWII Nazis — the Disney vehicle barely recouped its $40 million budget at the box office and zipped into the night as a rare misfire for the Mouse House.

Critics were mixed. Roger Ebert described the film as an Indy copycat that lifted sequences, such as the big zeppelin finale, from better movies. The overall consensus from critics at the time was that it was nothing but hot air — pretty to look at, but not worth getting excited about. (Even now, it holds a meager 66% fresh on RottenTomatoes.)

Time has been kind to the flick. The Rocketeer has plenty of followers, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who grew up in the ’90s not liking it.

Yet, despite the love displayed by nostalgic fans and the plethora of awesome memorabilia designed around the film’s art deco aesthetic, somehow The Rocketeer still feels under-appreciated.

Look, I get it. The film, directed by Joe Johnston, doesn’t quite deliver on its many promises — it’s a pint-sized Raiders of the Lost Ark with cool action and a rotating door of likable, though forgettable characters. Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord has the looks of an action hero, but his character lacks intrigue and pales in comparison to Timothy Dalton’s larger-than-life Neville Sinclair, a villain who practically runs away with the film and the girl. Speaking of which, Jennifer Connelly’s token female lead, Jenny Blake, actually lends quite a bit to the plot beyond her Hollywood-star good looks; and her scenes with Dalton crackle — oddly enough — considerably more than her moments with Campbell. Alan Arkin does his best Alan Arkin, while Terry O’Quinn and Paul Sorvino add a little nuance as eccentric millionaire and rocket pack inventor Howard Hughes, and Nazi-hating-gangster Eddie Valentine, respectively.

Still, even despite its admittedly minor flaws, The Rocketeer works as good ole fashioned entertainment, bursting with unabashed patriotism and cheesy earnestness, right down to Cliff’s attempts to reveal his secret identity to Jenny:

In terms of hair-raising action, The Rocketeer delivers the goods. Check out the airshow rescue, perhaps the film’s best sequence (and a breathtaking combination of pre-CGI FX and insane stonework):

Curiously, the film’s main action takes place over the course of a very busy day — the monstrous Lothar (along with the FBI) attacks Cliff and Peevy’s home, there’s a diner confrontation, Cliff flies to the South Seas Club to save Jenny, meets Howard Hughes, fights a bunch of Nazis at Griffith Observatory and then battles Sinclair on the German zeppelin all in one night. As such, we’re robbed of any scenes featuring The Rocketeer soaring around rescuing civilians in distress, as the focus of the film never detracts from the tight-as-Fitch’s ass-plot.

Clearly, those involved were saving grander ideas for the planned but never filmed sequels. Too bad. The Rocketeer establishes an interesting world full of dashing heroes and despicable villains set in the mythical fantasyland of 1930s Hollywood and begged further exploration. The pieces were set for more and it would have been interesting to see where director Joe Johnston would have taken the would-be franchise.

But here’s the thing: the film has a strong enough following to merit some sort of revival, right? There’s been talk of a Disney+ sequel, but the plot of that film focuses on a young kid fighting corrupt scientists in the Cold War:

“The new take keeps the story in a period setting and offers a fresh view on the characters. Set six years after the original Rocketeer and after Secord has vanished while fighting the Nazis, an unlikely new hero emerges: a young African–American female pilot, who takes up the mantle of Rocketeer in an attempt to stop an ambitious and corrupt rocket scientist from stealing jetpack technology in what could prove to be a turning point in the Cold War.” 

I mean, I won’t judge until I see it, but this sounds like… well, like a kid movie. And while The Rocketeer was certainly toned down to cater to younger audiences, it still felt decidedly grown-up. I mean, Sinclair erupts into a ball of flames and smashes into the Hollywood sign for cripes sakes!

There are also a number of gruesome offscreen deaths — Bigelow (Jon Polito) gets folded in half by Lothar, a side character gets stabbed by Sinclair during a film shoot, another man gets tortured in a hospital… it’s rough stuff even for an early ’90s Disney pic.

But that’s what made it great! That and all the terrific FX, notably the classic bit where our hero pursues the German zeppelin:

No, The Rocketeer isn’t perfect, but it was a lot of fun and certainly deserves much more respect beyond its current fandom. If we can get follow-ups to The Karate Kid, Highlander, Fletch, Turner and Hooch, The Mighty Ducks, and Three Men and a Baby, The Rocketeer deserves another chance to fly!

After 30 years of waiting, that kid who sat in an empty theater with his mom and sister and gushed over The Rocketeer way back in the summer of 1991 — and subsequently collected the trading cards and spent many hours playing that cheesy MS-DOS computer game — is itching for another ride around the world with everyone’s favorite hood ornament.

Disney, please, for the love of Peevy, don’t let us down!

Special shout out to the score by James Horner —  one of my all-time favorite adventure scores. Just listen to this:

Ah, good ole Horner.