Monday, 1 August 2016

Disney is rebooting The Rocketeer



The Rocketeer, which channelled the exploits of Indiana Jones in 1991, is the latest franchise reboot from Disney in the wake of Star Wars. Entitled The Rocketeers, the new movie will be produced by Clippers star Blake Griffin and Brigham Taylor.

The original was a rollicking, rollercoaster ride and boasted a memorable main theme by the late Hollywood film composer James Horner.

The Rocketeer's roots are firmly founded in Saturday morning serial King of the Rocket Men. A series I fondly recall seeing during school summer holiday reruns in the 1980s and reenacting scenes using Star Wars action figures, vehicles and playsets.

Andrew Lewin, fellow blogger and collaborator, has never seen The Rocketeer! So, he bravely dons a jet pack and takes to the skies in search of adventure and romance…

Guest post by Andrew Lewin

News this week that Disney is developing a sequel to its 1991 cult classic The Rocketeer reminded me that in 25 years I still hadn’t got around to watching the original. That’s despite the fact that it was adapted from a comic book which in turn was based on a 1940s Saturday morning serial called King of the Rocket Men that I remember absolutely loving when it was rerun on BBC television during the school summer holidays of the 1970s and 80s.

At the time of the film’s release The Rocketeer was something of a disappointment, opening to mixed reviews and lukewarm box office returns. However it certainly seems to have found its place in the home entertainment market and has since picked up a lot of enthusiastic fans who clearly hold the movie close to their hearts. Unfortunately from what I can tell it’s a case of ‘you had to be there to get it’, because coming to this movie so late in the day I have to say that I found myself almost entirely resistant to its supposed charms.

The main problem with the film for me is that it shares a failing common to many 1980s and 1990s movie adaptations of period pulp comic books such as The Phantom and Dick Tracy in that it thinks it has to indulge in a self-mocking, self-aware tongue-in-cheek lampoon approach to the original material. There’s not a single scene in the entire movie that isn’t being sent up in some way, from the out-sized performances to the cheesy script to the pointless ‘cameos’ from real personalities of the 1930s like Clark Gable, Howard Hughes and WC Fields.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around racing pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) who finds an experimental jet pack that has been stashed in his plane by a Nazi secret agent who has in turn stolen it from Hughes. After Secord uses the jet pack to save a friend at an air show display, he and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) find themselves under threat from all sides – Nazis, gangsters and the FBI – and it’s no time at all until the bad guys kidnap Secord’s wannabe-actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) in order to force him to hand over the jet pack. Jenny meanwhile has been busy getting seduced by Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who is not all that he seems.

If that sounds nice and thrilling, then unfortunately the slow pace of the film allied to the prevailing slapstick and romantic comedy tone mean that very little of this actually excites. Campbell has since proven himself to be a highly intelligent actor so clearly his portrayal of Secord as an all-American lunkhead with a handsome face but without a single intelligent thought in his head is all part of the film’s intended vision. Most of the collateral damage and death that ensues after Secord’s purloining of the jet pack is on his head; he’s supposed to be endearing but I found him simply frustrating

The climax of the film set on board a German airship comes close to proving the much-needed thrills, but even this is undercut by the way that the main villain’s ultimate demise is turned into a sight gag concerning the Hollywood sign. Meanwhile the film’s one real attempt at a truly dangerous presence – giant henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron) – is presented as a pantomime figure distractingly decked out with prosthetics to make him resemble original 1930s actor Rondo Hatton. To be honest, this only succeeded in making me feel offended on Hatton’s behalf.

The actual scenes of the Rocketeer in flight were probably rather thrilling in their day but have dated poorly and now seem like rather obvious optical effects. Moreover there are far too few of them, which is a shame as they are the most promising part of the film much as they were in King of the Rocket Men – in which if my (golden) memories are accurate the FX were actually more authentic-looking. You sense that a modern remake would make far better use of the airborne action along the same lines the first Iron Man film did of Tony Stark’s initial test flights. Unfortunately in The Rocketeer it seems that Secord’s capabilities of flying with the jet pack vary from scene to scene and even shot to shot according to an inconsistent script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo.

Overall the film is too busy indulging itself evoking its 1930s setting, and it’s all very averagely directed by Joe Johnston in what is after all only his second film in charge; he would go on to do much better work in the likes of Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and more recently Captain America: The First Avenger. In this case, whether it’s Johnston or the studio at fault, the tone simply misses the target: it aspires to evoke Indiana Jones but doesn’t come anywhere near the same state let alone zip code. Even the music by James Horner feels second rate, dating from a time when Horner was still struggling to move beyond the same riffs and orchestrations that he’d been overusing for a decade in films such as Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Krull and Cocoon.

Overall then I have to say I side with the original reviews which found the film tepid and unremarkable. It’s still sufficiently superficially charming for a suitably young audience even today, and I can certainly understand how someone who saw this in 1991 at an impressionable age would now feel dewy-eyed about it as a grown up in 2016, but unfortunately clearly neither grouping includes me. That said, a little credit where it’s due: The Rocketeer’s humour, simple naivety, earnest likeability and lightness of touch is without doubt vastly preferable to today’s non-stop diet of dark, ponderous, thundering, headache-inducing superhero epics that we’re being pummelled with on a near-weekly basis.

In any case I wish the new film/sequel/reboot the best of luck in being the sort of movie that long-time fans of The Rocketeer have always hoped for. Even better, perhaps it will be a movie that I can get fully on-board with as well. In which case maybe – just maybe – in years to come I might be able to revisit this film with more satisfaction and enjoyment and hence revise my opinions and my rating accordingly.

**1/2 out of *****

This review originally appeared on Taking the Short View.