Bill Campbell and Alan Arkin star in THE ROCKETEER, directed by Joe Johnston for Walt Disney Pictures.

The Rocketeer (1991, Joe Johnston)

Joe Johnston never getting recognition for The Rocketeer astounds me. Johnston creates a perfect adventure film, a now neglected and abused genre. Additionally, Johnston never fetishizes the historical setting. The late 1930s, Nazis as villains setting is practically its own genre at this point (strange how after a half decade, there are so few choices of undeniable evil for storytellers to use–well, at least ones white Americans would care about), but The Rocketeer never lets it get goofy. Johnston lets other, familiar trappings of the era (at least as it’s celebrated in film)–the radio, the friends at the cafe–take precedent. The Rocketeer puts more stock in California oranges than the more sensational possibilities.

And this emphasis is in a film featuring the FBI teaming up with the mob to shoot it out with Nazis in the middle of Los Angeles.

Past Johnston, the beauty of The Rocketeer is in the script, which is odd, given the screenwriters’ other work. The film starts gradually, with a beautiful flight sequence (James Horner’s score, again highly derivative of his other scores, is essential and wonderful). Having Alan Arkin helps, the script’s still responsible for immediately establishing the characters. Only during the first forty-five minutes of the film is it unsure… it’s good, but it isn’t fantastic. The big problem is the attention given to Jennifer Connelly. She’s the girlfriend and she’s kind of there. The Rocketeer makes an odd choice of introducing she and Bill Campbell’s relationship to the viewer when it’s on shaky ground. And the viewer doesn’t know it’s on shaky ground.

And here again is where The Rocketeer is strange. That instability agitates the plot until all the elements meet–not a revolutionary process, but in The Rocketeer it isn’t about set pieces, it isn’t about melodrama, it’s about actual human concern. The film’s enthralled by the idea people care about each other and it’s infectious.

Eventually, Connelly becomes a leading lady. I was entirely unimpressed with her as the film started and the exact opposite when it ended. It’s kind of a cheat, since the viewer gets to see her become that lead. Connelly’s transition kicks off the film’s third act, which is the finest adventure film act I can think of. It’s absolutely perfect, doesn’t make a single wrong move.

Campbell’s good in the lead–making the goofball dreamer real while still endearing him. He and Connelly are great together (better as the narrative progresses and a sequel with them as leads would have been lovely). Arkin’s fantastic, he and Campbell have some great scenes. Terry O’Quinn’s also good as Howard Hughes. Where Campbell really succeeds, coming in a practical nobody with some (supporting) TV experience, is maintaining himself as the lead when he’s got to contend with Timothy Dalton. As the villain, Dalton’s incredible. In anything else, he would walk away with the picture.

Dalton gets a lot of help from the script–there’s stuff in here I couldn’t believe I was hearing under a Disney Pictures banner. The script’s got some great dialogue and a lot of Disney-unfriendly one-liners. Dalton gets almost all of them. But the script’s also got a lot of discrete sensitivity and some wonderful little details.

I was concerned with The Rocketeer, not having seen it in ten years and the film’s online supporters waning in recent years. Even with the strong filmmaking, the narrative seemed troubled. It never occurred to me it might just be a real script.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, story by Bilson, De Meo and William Dear, based on the graphic novel by Dave Stevens; director of photography, Hiro Narita; edited by Arthur Schmidt; music by James Horner; production designer, Jim Bissell; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Charles Gordon and Lloyd Levin; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Bill Campbell (Cliff), Jennifer Connelly (Jenny), Alan Arkin (Peevy), Timothy Dalton (Neville Sinclair), Paul Sorvino (Eddie Valentine), Terry O’Quinn (Howard Hughes), Ed Lauter (Fitch), James Handy (Wolinski), Tiny Ron (Lothar), Jon Polito (Otis Bigelow), Eddie Jones (Malcolm the Mechanic), William Sanderson (Skeets), Don Pugsley (Goose), Nada Despotovich (Irma) and Margo Martindale (Millie).


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