“What makes someone a hero?” is the sort of question whose answer can define a whole culture. It’s at the core of why the post-war Western’s lone gunman and Japanese cinema’s wandering samurai evolved side-by-side: Take away the gun or the sword, the poncho or the kimono, and you’ve got the same guy. Hollywood, of course, is asking “What makes a hero into a franchisable intellectual property?” which is not exactly the same question, but isn’t exactly not the same one. Until the bubble bursts entirely, studios will seek out the combination of traits that make a dashing young person with superpowers the protagonist of the movie your kids are bugging you to go see this summer.
But what makes a hero? If it’s a costume, powers, improbably good combat prowess, and a gritty backstory full of trauma, well, the eponymous star of The Rocketeer sort of barely delivers. Billy Campbell’s Cliff Secord, the hapless flyboy underneath a radio repurposed to serve as a combination helmet and rudder, takes it on the chin in fights, bumbles about while in his costume, and certainly isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Throughout the film, he’s surrounded by gun-toting mobsters, sneering G-men, and actual Nazis, and it never seems like he knows what he’s doing.
And yet The Rocketeer, back in 1991, is unquestionably exactly what anybody looking for a good hero story or a good hero franchise could have possibly wanted. Thirty years on, and after director Joe Johnston brought the same un-self-conscious earnestness to Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer is still remembered fondly. And in this climate of constant reboots, reimaginings and retreads, anybody who saw this in theaters could rightly ask why the heck we haven’t seen this make a comeback.
It’s October of 1938, and Cliff Secord and his mentor and gearhead Peevy (Alan Arkin at his driest, cheeriest, and most avuncular) are betting their bottom dollar on a hot little racing plane that can help them hit the big time. Prone to stunting, Cliff flies too close to a car chase gunfight in progress between the feds and some shady criminals. The crooks plug Cliff’s plane full of holes and stash their ill-gotten MacGuffin in his shop. Cliff’s out the plane and three years of work (and what a tragedy—it’s a real-life Gee Bee Model R, a dangerous hot rod of a plane with a history of ending up on the ground in pieces, and a perfect metaphor for Cliff’s recklessness).
But, he’s got the MacGuffin: a freaking jetpack. Against Peevy’s advice, Cliff learns how to fly the crazy thing, reasoning that he’ll give it back to whomever owns it once he’s raked in enough cash to build a new race plane that can take him to the nationals. Soon enough, Cliff finds himself running from the feds and mobsters going after the thing, and discovers that his best girl, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), is mixed up with the damn Nazis who are trying to steal the rocket and use it to conquer the world.
Behind all this is Timothy Dalton’s Neville Sinclair, a deep-cover Nazi spy who is, according to him, the number-three top-billed actor in Hollywood. Dalton was fresh off his stint as James Bond here, and it’s joyous to see him fully embrace cackling, oily villainy as a sort of Errol Flynn stand-in. (It’s hard to say if it’s a dig at the real Flynn, who was a womanizer, a statutory rapist, and at one point ran in the same circles as L. Ron Hubbard.) Sinclair easily has more charisma and more physicality than the hero here, and that’s kind of the point: Before he ever knows Sinclair is the villain, Cliff is jealous of the guy’s fame and Jenny’s devotion to his corny movies.
Cliff isn’t one to keep a low profile, so it’s not long before he saves an endangered stunt pilot in broad daylight and earns himself the moniker “The Rocketeer,” bringing the bad guys down on him. This in turn gets Jenny kidnapped by Sinclair, and Cliff hauled in by the feds when they finally trace the rocket back to him. By now he’s crashed in a lake, crashed in a field, and set a night club on fire. If you’re wondering how this dope is a hero, the film finally answers.
Right at the low point, when Cliff discovers Jenny’s in the hands of the bad guys and he hasn’t got a friend left, he snaps at a little girl who’s looking to him for comfort. And then, immediately, he apologizes for hurting her feelings, kneels down to talk to her face to face, and tries to cheer her up. Hauled in by the G-men, he discovers the rocket’s true owner and inventor is none other than Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), and that he’s up against the Third Reich.
Campbell, you realize in these two scenes, is perfectly cast. You believe he’s sorry for hurting the kid’s feelings. You believe his haunted look while he watches nightmarish Nazi propaganda that shows how they’re going to turn the rocket pack into a Nazi superweapon. It’s right there that he has his heroic turn, and it’s no more complicated than “Stopping these Nazi assholes is more important than getting paid.”
The third act features tommy gun fights, an exploding Nazi zeppelin, and action hero fistfights. None of these things are what help Cliff win the day, really: It’s his willingness to give the rocket up and take advantage of his enemy’s shortsighted greed. For his trouble, he loses his cool jetpack and doesn’t have two pennies to rub together, but he’s got Jenny and Peevy’s got the blueprints to try again. And oh, right: He did the right thing.
The Rocketeer did pretty poorly, and it’s a shame that it did. Besides being pretty fun, it also shows the sort of winking knowledge that proves the folks involved had a love for old-timey aviation: Several beautiful old planes make cameos, the Rocketeer’s “avionics” actually make sense if you’re watching closely in a few scenes (he uses his arms like ailerons!), and of course when Cliff gives Howard Hughes the slip, he uses a scale model of the famous Spruce Goose plane as an impromptu hang-glider (proving that the sonuvabitch really will fly)!
And playing opposite Dalton’s mustache-twirling Sinclair is Connelly, who asserts herself throughout the film and, hilariously, sees through Sinclair’s flowery words because he’s plagiarizing himself and she’s already seen every last one of his movies.
The thing even ends on the promise that Cliff will surely strap another jetpack on at some point and return. It’s never happened, despite the fondness so many still have for the movie. Based on the comic by Dave Stevens that had debuted a decade earlier, it makes perfect sense for another go-round, particularly in light of the fact that Johnston has since shown that he can take a comic character mainstream audiences could not have given a shit about before 2011 and turned him into the basis for an entire sprawling, ongoing story.
Despite all that, The Rocketeer has gotten little more than a few comic adaptations and a cartoon series aimed squarely at younger viewers. To this day, it feels like it just came out during the wrong time in Hollywood.
Kenneth Lowe may not make an honest buck, but he’s 100% American and he don’t work for no two-bit Nazi. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.