When I first had a chance to see The Rocketeer, I was too young to appreciate the appeal of a simple adventure story. (I thought maturity required cynicism.) Now, I’m thrilled to get a chance to better appreciate the excitement and nostalgia of this 1938-set tale about a guy with a jetpack who fights Nazis and saves the day. It’s a lot more fun for me now, especially since I know more about the period and some of the inspirations (such as model Bettie Page, the basis for Jenny).
This widescreen letterboxed Blu-ray single-disc release features digital restoration and enhanced high-definition sound in celebration of the movie’s 20th anniversary. (Which means the sound effects are amped up — this seems like one that deserves a surround system.) Some of the special effect shots are clearly rear-projection, with the hero visibly on a different plane from the aerial action, surrounded by a tell-tale outline, but it’s the imagination that counts, and that always comes through.
I’d remembered that Bill Campbell was the young (and handsome) pilot hero Cliff, with Alan Arkin as his mechanic/mentor and Jennifer Connelly the gorgeous girlfriend and aspiring actress Jenny. I’d even remembered Timothy Dalton as the Errol Flynn-like swashbuckling matinee idol gone bad. But I’d forgotten that there was a mobster, played by Paul Sorvino, and back then, I didn’t even know who Terry O’Quinn was. Here he’s playing Howard Hughes, the guy behind the development of the rocket pack everyone’s chasing and Cliff winds up with.
Director Joe Johnston also helmed this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger. The Rocketeer makes a good companion piece, since both are about straightforward heroes, patriotic American boys who do the right thing because that’s what you do, regardless of how hard or risky it might be. (For another fun comic connection, Superman’s dad (Eddie Jones) is one of the guys who hangs out at the airfield.) The character design, with the “hood ornament” helmet, remains a streamlined classic.
The Rocketeer isn’t wall-to-wall action, making some call the film “slow”, but I think it reads that way only if you’re looking at it as a kids’ movie. For the rest of us, it’s a welcome journey through 30s Hollywood, following Cliff (Campbell) and Jenny’s (Connelly) growing relationship as well as the birth of a hero. At times, it gets a bit silly, but I still enjoyed watching the Nazis get machine-gunned. And Jenny is a hoot, the way she saves herself and even sometimes him. That’s one way the movie improved on the comics; this Jenny isn’t part of the story just to be drawn with few clothes on.
The only special feature is the original trailer, which has that charming fuzzy “we didn’t remaster this part” quality. It’s also not widescreen. But it beautifully presents the excitement and adventure of the premise. I hope this does well enough for a later special edition with commentary and documentary comparing Dave Stevens’ comics to the movie. I’d also like to see them include Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air, the promotional TV special they ran that included Stevens and was hosted by Bill Campbell.