days of thrills, laughter

Celebrating yesteryear's pulp heroics

Published: Mar 10 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, June 21, 1991.
THE ROCKETEER. Written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. Based on characters created by Dave Stevens. Music by James Horner. Directed by Joe Johnston. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional violence.
IS THERE NO END to their villainy?
    Just two years ago, American archaeological adventurer Henry Jones, Jr. thwarted a Nazi plot to gain possession of the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, a biblical artifact with the potential for mass destruction.
    And now it's 1938. Jones, Jr. is currently attempting to beat Hitler's evil minions to the Holy Grail, an item that's been locked away in a Middle Eastern cave since the last crusade.
    Meanwhile, back in the United States, an Axis deep-cover agent is involved in a deadly game of industrial espionage. His target is the Hughes Aircraft Corporation's top secret X-3 rocket pack, a device capable of turning ordinary soldiers into high-flying supermen.
    The spy's plan goes awry and, following a high-speed chase, the X-3 goes missing.
    Of course, there's something these Nazi rats never plan for, and that's America's unique ability to turn ordinary men into heroes. Within hours of the X-3's disappearance, Los Angelinos are hailing a daring, helmeted do-gooder that the newspapers call The Rocketeer.
    He first appears at a dirt field air show where he saves the life of an otherwise doomed pilot. And now, neither the Nazis nor the FBI will rest until they have him.
    Finally, the summer of 1991 has a hit. Drawing upon the Saturday morning serial tradition that inspired Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones features, director Joe (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) Johnston has created a near-perfect warm-weather entertainment.
    Based upon comic book artist Dave Stevens's loving homage to the pulp heroes of the 1930s, Johnston's Rocketeer is a treat for all ages. Departing significantly from Stevens's text, screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo have come up with a storyline that is intriguing, inventive and refreshingly wholesome.
    Our hero is barnstorming stunt pilot Cliff Secord (played with perfect gee-whiz sincerity by newcomer Bill Campbell). A good-natured galoot, he's as straight, clean and simple as they come.
    The villain is English-accented actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the "No. 3 box office draw" in America. A swashbuckler in the Errol Flynn mold — remember those recent news stories about actor Flynn's Nazi sympathies? — Sinclair is currently working on a picture called The Laughing Bandit on a set that makes it look a lot like 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.
    Secord's girlfriend is would-be actress Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), a beautiful bit player who becomes a proper lady in distress when the plot moves into high gear.
    Parents can send their kids to this latest Walt Disney Pictures release secure in the knowledge that this is the kind of high quality, high-minded action entertainment that we keep hoping for. Johnston's picture is fun without being malicious or mean-minded.
    Parents should accompany their kids, though. Conceived with wit, intelligence and considerable love, The Rocketeer is full of delicious period references for film and aviation buffs alike.
    One terrific touch is the fact that Sinclair's sinister henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron) is a dead ringer for 1940s film heavy Rondo Hatton. Another is actor Terry Quinn's wonderful impersonation of Howard Hughes.
    Indeed, Johnston manages to get just what he wants out of a cast that includes Alan Arkin (as folksy aircraft engineer "Peevy" Peabody) and Paul Sorvino (as all-American mobster Eddie Valentine).
    A joyous return to the days of thrills and laughter, The Rocketeer manages to be self-aware without being self-important.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1991. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In the tradition of the best American pin-up artists, Dave Stevens was a master of "good girl" illustration. Born in 1955, he came into his own in the 1980s, when a new generation of independent comic publishers were jockeying for shelf space in the emerging network of specialty comic shops. Between 1982 and 1995, The Rocketeer's flight path included four of those publishers. Stevens gave his hero a girlfriend, an aspiring model named Betty, whose look was inspired by 1950s pin-up queen Bettie Page. Stevens's comic contributed to a resurgence of interest in Page and, in early 1994, the artist finally met his muse. They became friends and remained so until his 2008 death at 52 from leukemia. She died exactly nine months later (December 11), aged 85. In Texas-born directer Joe Johnston's film, Rocketeer Cliff Secord's girlfriend is an aspiring actress named Jenny. As played by Jennifer Connelly, she has neither the Bettie look nor manner. Johnston, who got his start in film as an art director on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, touched down in Vancouver to make his fourth feature film, the 1995 board-game fantasy Jumanji. His Rocketeer experience made him the perfect choice to direct 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger. Johnston's second comic-book adaptation was the best of the four features that set the stage for Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012).