A PG movie that just happens to have Nazis in it. There's actually a tremendous amount of violence. One guy sets himself on fire as he screams into the camera. Another guy has all of his bones broken multiple times as he's tortured. There's gunfire and a decent amount of death. Like, it's 1991, PG. Mostly, it's only Nazis and gangsters that get killed. There's an odd amount of patriotism in the movie, allowing the distinctions between criminal class to exist.
DIRECTOR: Joe Johnston
I don't know if this shocks anyone, but the guy who directed this also directed Captain America: The First Avenger. (It's not at all shocking. If anything, The Rocketeer is a proof of concept for Captain America: The First Avenger.) I remember watching this movie on repeat as a kid. I also remember having the NES game and getting pretty darned far in the game as well. That was one of those games that didn't really give you the core power until you earned it. I remember squandering the heck out of my gas supply in that game. But we're not here to talk about my odd obsession with playing licensed titles for video game consoles. We're here to talk about The Rocketeer.
What would it be like to be a descendant of Errol Flynn and to watch The Rocketeer? I mean, it's bad enough that everyone is calling your patriarch a Nazi who met Adolf Hitler. But then, a movie comes out and Timothy Dalton plays a thinly veiled version of your Nazi great-grandfather or whatever. I don't think I knew about Errol Flynn being a Nazi back when I was a kid. It's more than likely that I didn't really understand what a Nazi was back then. I was just obsessed with my Nintendo, unlike today, and loved the movie that hearkened back to yesteryear. I claimed that there wouldn't be Captain America: The First Avenger without The Rocketeer. Part of it is tone. But the other half is a glorification of the past. This is the 1940s that glorifies the Greatest Generation. I had a discussion about this the other day in my film class. I brought it up because I'm a busy-body know-it-all in that class (and in others). I was discussing that there are just a lot of movies that glorify the past, similar to what George Lucas did with American Graffiti and what Linklater does with Dazed and Confused and Everybody Gets Some. Joe Johnston probably gets a pass because he wasn't a member of The Greatest Generation. Rather, this is a romanticizing of America when we remember being at our best: fighting Nazis. The world of The Rocketeer is one free of racism mainly because the world is entirely white. Yeah, it's a real bummer. I have to imagine that, if I was being really honest, Captain America: The First Avenger probably shares the same problem. But Johnston wasn't from the '40s. Perhaps Johnston has that World's Fair view of the past that we all hold onto; a world where art deco ruled supreme and that Howard Hughes never went absolutely nuts.
The Rocketeer is a weird superhero. He stems from the same era as Superman and the ilk. He really rides that '40s vibe a little harder than other superheroes, mainly because he isn't that famous outside of this film. If Spider-Man is a character who doesn't always win, Cliff almost never wins. That might be somewhat inaccurate. He wins...almost by accident. Like, imagine that Superman just kept on accidentally laying a punch on someone. I'm in the plausibility camp that says that flying rocket men could probably do some serious damage, especially in war. I mean, it is the central premise for the film. It's why everyone is trying to get Cliff. But he really just kind of keeps falling into success. A central element of the film is that Cliff has no idea what he's doing. He's a fly boy, which allows the audience to understand that he has no fear of highs or for flying a million miles an hour. But there's never really a moment where Cliff has it together. He's a bit of a Mr. Magoo when it comes to saving the world. But there's something really charming about that whole element. As an avatar for the audience, I wonder if he thinks "I should probably just turn on the rocket. After all, that's what's gotten me through so far." It's actually bananas that Cliff isn't just flying that thing constantly. Like, he's such a likable character and I'm not sure why. Is it because he's good looking? It's because he's good looking, isn't it?
But The Rocketeer goes into some stuff that is just kind of frustrating towards women. I remember having a mild crush on Jennifer Connelly at one point. I want to chalk it up to The Rocketeer, not Labyrinth. Sorry, the rest of the Internet. The Rocketeer was my movie. Labyrinth was fine and I totally respect Labyrinth's game. But I knew Connelly from The Rocketeer. When she was in other movies that weren't The Rocketeer, I was waiting for her to make a Rocketeer reference for some reason. But I realized something from a rewatch that mostly held up: she might not be a great actress. Secondly, I also realize that comment might not be fair because she's not given a lot to work with in this film. Jenny is kind of the worst in this film. She is with Cliff. She knows his hopes and his dreams. Yeah, he should have shared his terrible news with her, but she is not painted in a very flattering life. She starts dating a guy who risks his life doing trick things with planes. She's floored when he is embarrassed to share that news with her. This gives her one real motivating trait. She spends the entire movie annoyed with a fight they have, despite the larger narrative happening. Part of this comes from the cartoonish attitude that comic book adaptations of the '90s had. It never goes full Dick Tracy, but there are a lot of crossover moments. This mundane side story possibly grounds the film a bit, making Cliff an even more relatable character. But then it also just makes these two a couple that no one is really rooting for. We get that Cliff is in love with Jenny, but Jenny seems really put out by this guy who comes across like a bit of a loser when all is said and done. It's this artificial split of a couple that we weren't ever really rooting for to begin with.
But the oddest thing about The Rocketeer is that it holds up. The '90s were a time in superhero cinema where C and D list characters reigned supreme in substandard movies. Steel, The Phantom, and Dick Tracy were the big contenders, not to even start speaking of the other Captain America movie. I thought that The Rocketeer was really just the best of a bunch of slobs. But for a movie that is completely standalone, the movie is functional. I mean, it shouldn't be functional. If I had to plot this movie, it would be the following: Cliff is in trouble, he uses the rocket, wackiness ensues, repeat until he gets good at it. But this movie has that soundtrack that has been used in every heartwarming nostalgia trailer since this film existed. The movie thrives on the aesthetics of the film as a whole. There's a scene where Cliff disguises himself as a waiter. Instead of removing what was sure to be his "iconic" leather bomber jacket, he simply puts it over it. It's actually a miracle that everyone didn't know that Cliff was the Rocketeer because he's constantly dressed like the Rocketeer. I'll always talk about the gorgeous work that Marvel does with their cinematic universe compared to any cinematic universe. But there's something perfect about a movie that was always meant to be a standalone film. I'm sure that if Disney continued to have faith in the Rocketeer, there would be a sequel. But there's no even hint that Cliff would strap on the rocket one more time for more adventures against the Nazis. The movie goes as far as to blow up the rocket so no one else can use it. Do you know how gutsy that would be today? I mean, it's so gutsy, that Iron Man 3 decided to do the same thing with its film and then just immediately ignore that precedent.
The best part is that my kids liked it. I know that there's a Disney Junior version of The Rocketeer that looks very silly and lighthearted. But they really got into it. It fed that little Marvel hunger that they had and yet, was still more family friendly. There's some goofy things. I mentioned the Dick Tracy tonal stuff. The Jaws-henchman is a bit shameless. But the movie rides pretty high on what works and just embraces some goofy stuff. Special effects wise, it's really good for the '90s, but not today. But again, my kids didn't care one iota. It was a fun time and a great family movie night.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.