Sunday, January 29, 2012

Comica Obscura Marathon: The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer (1991, Joe Johnston)

Paying close attention to the comic book movie landscape, the films that feature rather ordinary people taking on the role of great heroes are far and few between. The protagonists are either blessed with intellectual and physical skills which far surpass what regular humans can accomplish or, even when the hero in question is a mere mortal, they do benefit from some obvious advantages, like how Bruce Wayne relies on his endless amounts of monetary funds to render his night excursions as Batman as easy as possible. It would be refreshing to see a truly simple individual benefit from circumstance and perseverance to overcome the most dangerous foes. Someone answered that call. From the mind of Dave Stevens came, in the early 1980s, a comic book which was a throwback to the pulpy Saturday matinee heroes of yore: The Rocketeer.

Set in Los Angeles of the late 1930s, the story follows Cliff (Bill Campbell), a test pilot, who, with the help his father Peevey's (Alan Arkin) knowledge of mechanics, take a variety of planes on test flights with the occasional participation in national competitions. Young, kind and driven by a sense of adventure, he just loves to fly. The apple of Cliff's eye is Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), who earns some money as an extra on film sets, although her greater goal would be to one day gain a starring role in Hollywood's big productions, like the actor at the centre of her current film, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), the number 3 box office winner in the country. When Cliff and his father stumble upon a funny looking rocket pack, a wild adventure begins. Pretty soon the local mob, headed by Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) are after the coveted object. The truth of the matter is that they operate at the behest of Sinclair, for reasons that go unexplained until later, as does a towering monster of a man, Rothar (Tiny Ron Taylor). Even Howard Hughes himself (Terry O'Quinn, who is excellent in the role) has an interest in the engine. Rather than be docile and hand it over, Cliff, much against his father's wishes, straps on the rocket and, equipped with an eye catching helmet, fights off the villains, earning his reputation as The Rocketeer!

Were everything about Joe Johnston's picture, from its tone, characters and plot to be summarized into a single word, it would be 'fluff.' The film is well intentioned, well spirited and driven by a desire for some very old school adventure of the swashbuckling variety (one character even whips around a sword in one scene!). Even though the protagonists have reasonably well defined story arcs that the viewer can identify with, the picture has no grander pretensions about it. An X-Men allegorical study of race relations and closeted homosexuals The Rocketeer is most certainly not. Nay, it is more along the lines of another famous movie made by non other than one of Johnston's film mentors, Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which itself relies heavily on character charisma and fantastical set pieces to propel it self forward.

When breaking down the good natured aspect of The Rocketeer, the discussion arguably begins and ends with actors Bill Campbell and Alan Arkin, who play a charming, lovable, sometimes bickering father and son duo. While Campbell never made a big name for himself in Hollywood, his career path afterwards concentrating mostly on the world of television, there is a sense that he relishes every moment in The Rocketeer. His Cliff is the epitome of a young, American, gun-ho adventurer whose dedication to family and friends as well as his courage give him the lift he needs to overcome the odds. It is a far more slippery performance to pull off than some might believe. Spouting heroic lines does not suffice. Playing it cool does not suffice. There must be something genuine in the performance, something about the actor's heart that lends the role a level of believability, not in a manner that should make the film realistic per say, but that the viewer can believe the in the character's struggle. Campbell pulls this off in spades, as does Alan Arkin, whose character is very different, but compliments his co-star quite nicely. Jennifer Connelly is reduced to being what so many female characters are in films of this ilk, although no one can claim she does not give it her all. At the very least, the picture does allow her to outsmart one of its chief villains in a critical scene.

Maybe the one department in which the film performs a slight miscalculation in terms of acting, be it because of the script, the direction or the performers themselves, is in the dynamic between Paul Sorvino and Timothy Dalton. Both are solid actors, so the problem does not lie specifically with them as performers, but rather in the atmosphere they lend to their shared scenes coupled with how the film requires that they interact. It seems that between Sorvino and Dalton, if one is to play a real intimidating antagonist, the advantage goes to the former, yet it is the latter who takes the reigns. Anybody who visited Between the Seats during the Definitive Bond Marathon knows our favourable opinion on Dalton, but seeing an imposing figure like Sorvino submit himself to the Welshman seemed somewhat implausible.

Apart from the performances, the film rests on the adventure and sense of excitement it will or will not charm its audience with. Director Johnston wastes no time in setting characters up and thrusting them all into the thick of the action, juggling light comedy, impressive stunt work, visual effects of the early 1990s variety (anybody discovering The Rocketeer for the first time in 2012 is just going to have to deal with that reality) and staying true to the nature of the characters within those moments of thrills and chills. The set pieces themselves are varied enough to continuously impress, which is no small feat given that all Cliff can really do as the hero is, well, fly. Two standouts are when Cliff squares off against Sinclair inside a night club and, unsurprisingly, the climax, which has Cliff and Jenny fight their way inside as well as on top of a massive blimp at night. That second piece is a fantastic example of the sort of action movies such as The Rocketeer are all about and, honestly, the type of action one wishes there was more of in today's films. Despite what praise can be showered onto the direction that went into the set pieces, those very scenes do make the physics behind the rocket a little puzzling. At the start of the film, as Cliff and Peevy test its engine, the rocket demonstrates an out of this world level of power and speed, and yet later on Cliff is able to hover gentle inside a room. Is this a glaring inconsistency? Did Cliff have more time to practice using the rocket? If so, then when, since it does not seem like very much time elapses between the opening and closing scenes of the movie. Maybe those sorts of questions need be reserved for other movies, who knows.

Last but certainly not least, there is the Rocketeer's costume. There is an old expression which says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so a grand elaboration of what makes the suit so stylish is maybe out of order, but suffice to say that it is awesome, in particular the helmet. Couple with that leather fighter pilot-style jacket and one is left with pretty amazing looking hero.

The Rocketeer is the type of film in which the 'plot' is more of an afterthought than anything else (in fact, the more plot is revealed, the sillier it becomes), but the overall honesty and goodness about the characters will help the viewer cheer the movie on. It is all rather silly, but when the big action packed climax occurs, we would, in fact, like to see Cliff and Jenny make it out alive and live happily together. It is a little unfortunate that relations between director Johnston and the studio soured during production and that the film failed to impress at the box office. A sequel would have actually been a nice prospect. But what am I writing?! We can read Dave Stevens' comics!

Done here? Find out if Bill knows how to operate a rocket pack over at his Movie Emporium.

1 comment:

Bill Thompson said...

Good stuff, and there's certainly good material there for a rebuttal. :)