"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jack's Back

By 1988, James Spader was probably tired of playing countless Preppie douchebags and Yuppie slimeballs in films like Pretty in Pink (1986), Baby Boom (1987), and Less Than Zero (1987). If you needed someone to play a materialistic scumbag with no morals, Spader was your man. Before sex, lies, and videotape (1989) changed his career forever, he did a little seen thriller called Jack’s Back (1988), about a series of Jack the Ripper copycat murders. The film was quite a departure for Spader who ended up playing identical twins – a young, altruistic doctor and his ne’er-do-well sibling. The film also marked the auspicious directorial debut of one Rowdy Herrington, the “auteur” behind such meat and potato action films as Road House (1989) and Striking Distance (1993). Sadly, Jack’s Back was barely released and hardly reviewed, languishing in obscurity, which is too bad because it is an oddly affecting thriller with quite a decent performance by Spader who seems to be relishing the fact that he doesn’t have to wear a Polo shirt.

The police are baffled by a series of murders each committed 100 years to the day from the original Jack the Ripper killings. They have one more night and one last killing but have no leads or suspects. John Wesford (James Spader) is a young Los Angeles doctor who is active in the community, much to the chagrin of the head doctor (Rod Loomis) at the free clinic he works at. He’s a good physician and seems genuinely concerned about the people he treats and Spader does a nice job conveying his character’s caring beside manner even if the film lays his crusading doc status on a little thick.

However, Jack’s Back succeeds in doing what few if any of Spader’s film had done before – allow us to sympathize with his character. Director Herrington helps out by successfully establishing the clinic where John works at and the people he works with so that we become invested in their lives, like the playful flirting between John and fellow doctor Christine Moscari (Cynthia Gibb). That is why it comes as such a shock when he is murdered 25 minutes into the film by someone who appears to be the Jack the Ripper copycat murderer.

Within moments of his brother dying, Richard Wesford (Spader again) awakes from a nightmare where he saw John murdered. He goes to the police but they are understandably skeptical (one of the detectives is memorably played by the always watchable Chris Mulkey). John’s death looks like a suicide and he’s a medical student so all the evidence points to him. As a result, they think that they’ve found their murderer. Rick knows otherwise and proceeds to prove it with the help of Chris.

Herrington establishes the differences between the twins visually by what they wear – John wears a white sports jacket and pastel colors while Rick wears a black leather jacket and blue jeans (because, you know, he’s a rebel). Spader does all the heavy lifting by creating different behavior for each sibling. John is kind and caring while Rick is a brooding loner. Spader has a tougher job portraying John because he has very little time to introduce him and get us to empathize with him. With Rick, he ups the brooding intensity which makes it a little harder to like him but Spader’s unique charisma helps considerably and over the course of the rest of the film the actor gradually peels back Rick’s tough exterior.

Cynthia Gibb conveys an adorable Nancy Drew vibe with Chris. I always liked the cute girl-next-door thing she had going on in the 1980s and how she appeared in films as diverse as the Rob Lowe hockey drama Youngblood (1986) and Oliver Stone’s hard-hitting political thriller Salvador (1986). She isn’t the strongest actress in the world, which may explain why she never made more of an impact in Hollywood, but she has an engaging personality and nice chemistry with Spader. There are even hints of a sexual tension thing going on between their characters that lurks under the surface and never feels forced.

Herrington keeps things moving while still taking the time to let us get to know Spader’s characters, even giving time for Rick to reflect over how the death of John affects him. This is something that is missing from his subsequent thrillers. Maybe he figured that was why Jack’s Back failed commercially and moved on to no-nonsense action films like Road House and thrillers like Striking Distance, which are competent guilty pleasures but feature pretty conventional protagonists that are no where near as compelling as what Spader does in Jack’s Back. Herrington knows his way around the conventions of the thriller genre, and is able to build suspense at the right moment and where to punctuate the film with an action sequence, even if the climax seems to borrow heavily from the one in Manhunter (1986).

Jack’s Back was shot in September 1987 on a budget of $1.5 million. Cinema Group, a small film company that changed its name to Pallisades Entertainment, financed the film. They pre-sold the rights via cable and home video sales in lieu of proper promotion and a wide theatrical release. What reviews Jack’s Back did get were mixed. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Herrington’s work: “He has taken the trouble to make three-dimensional characters, and paused here and there to provide scenes that make the characters seem real and complicated, instead of just pawns in a movie formula.” However, The New York Times’ Caryn James felt that the film was “so dull it leaves you plenty of time to marvel at how a plot can be this rickety, how a production can look this shabby, and how the first-time writer and director Rowdy Herrington could borrow a story with so relentless a grip on our imaginations and in no time at all declaw it.”

Herrington does a decent job at keeping us guessing as to the killer’s identity. Is it the hulking intern (Rex Ryon) who works at the free clinic? Is it the oddly detached police psychiatrist (nicely played by Robert Picardo)? Or, is it Rick, a man with a checkered past and medical training? Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out but the film is still an enjoyable ride – the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page-turner you read on the way into work on a given day and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.


Siskel, Gene. “Zooming in on James Spader’s Top Secret Debut.” Chicago Tribune. June 5, 1988.

Westbrook, Bruce. “Spader Plays Characters Audience Loves to Hate.” Houston Chronicle. May 27, 1988.

Friday, January 21, 2011

To Live and Die in L.A.

By 1985, William Friedkin had effectively burned all of his bridges in Hollywood with a succession of underperformers that included Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and Deal of the Century (1983). With nothing left to lose, he returned back to the kind of film that made his reputation: a gritty, police procedural like The French Connection (1974). He made To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), the west coast answer to The French Connection, a slick, stylish nihilistic thriller that immersed itself in the world of counterfeiting. Made at the same time as Miami Vice was becoming a cultural phenomenon on television, Friedkin’s film is the best Michael Mann film not made by Mann. Like his films, To Live and Die in L.A. is obsessed with the lives and careers of elite cops and criminals. It takes a fascinating look at the minutia of how the cops go about catching crooks and how the crooks ply their trade with both sides employing ruthless methods.

Audiences in 1985 weren’t ready for Friedkin’s world of unsympathetic protagonists and even nastier antagonists. When it was released in theaters, the film failed to connect with a mainstream audience that was repulsed by its amoral, unlikable characters and downbeat, nihilistic ending. What did people expect from the same man who brought them the equally uncompromising The French Connection? Despite equally uncompromising films like King of New York (1990) and television shows like The Shield, To Live and Die in L.A. is still something of a freakish anomaly, one that its director has yet to equal.

Right from the get-go and in very Mann-like fashion, Friedkin introduces the film’s protagonist and antagonist at work. Richard Chance (William Petersen) is a Secret Service agent that, along with his partner Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), stops a terrorist from blowing up the President of the United States. Chance is the proverbial thrill-seeking cowboy, an adrenaline junky that gets his kicks in his spare time base-jumping off bridges. Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is a master counterfeiter, the Da Vinci of funny money and we see him go through the various steps of how he plies his trade in an engrossing montage. And when he’s not doing that, Masters creates abstract paintings and then burns them up afterwards.

Initially, the film hits you up with some of the oldest clichés in the book: the loose cannon cop and his older partner only days away from retirement (he even says at one point, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”). You think, oh man, this is going to be one of those films but then after Chance’s partner is killed by Masters, he’s assigned a new partner by the name of John Vukovich (John Pankow). Right from the start Chance lays down the ground rules: “I’m gonna bag Masters and I don’t give a shit how I’m going to do it.” All bets are off and Friedkin never looks back as he proceeds to turn all of the genre conventions on their head or present them in such a dynamic and exciting way that you don’t mind.

In some respects, To Live and Die in L.A. is the photo negative of The French Connection. While the latter is set during the cold wintery months in New York City, the former takes place in the sun-burnt streets of Los Angeles. With each film, Friedkin expertly captures the unique geography of both cities. Where New York is all vertical buildings and has a closed-in feel, L.A. is all open spaces and horizontal landscapes. He wastes no time immersing us in the sights and sounds of the cities with an uber montage of locales, accompanied by the very Hollywood New Wave sounds of Wang Chung. It’s like Friedkin made a list of every establishing shot used in L.A. films and then proceeded to avoid repeating them at all costs while still presenting an effective view of the city so that you feel it.

Like with The French Connection, Friedkin punctuates To Live and Die in L.A. with the occasional chase sequence but unlike a lot of action films they are integral to and drive the plot forward. For example, early on Chance chases one of Masters’ flunkies (a wonderfully slimy John Turturro) through a busy airport and this provides our heroes with their first lead on the counterfeiter’s operation. I was struck by this sequence and another foot chase (featuring Gary Cole, briefly) at how in these scenes the actors are really hoofin’ it. There’s none of this Hollywood bullshit where you see actors half-heartedly running. William Petersen is flat out running his ass off in these scenes, which is not just impressive to see but adds to the film’s authenticity.

Not content with having created one of the best car chase sequences ever committed to film, in The French Connection, Friedkin orchestrates To Live and Die in L.A.’s show-stopping chase sequence where Chance and Vukovich are pursued by a slew of gunmen in cars. It starts off dangerous and exciting and quickly shifts gears into a hellish, white-knuckled intense ride that truly has to be seen to be believed. Friedkin actually manages to top what he did in The French Connection by upping the scale (i.e. the number of cars, duration, etc.). The thing you notice right away is that no music plays over this sequence, just the sound of the engines of the cars and the protagonists freaking out. If you haven’t thought that Chance is certifiably batshit crazy by now then this scene will do it. Friedkin inserts reaction shots of a determined-looking Chance and a sweaty Vukovich on the verge of losing his mind – it is these shots that help make this sequence so tense and exciting because we can clearly see how what is happening is affecting these guys. Even though it defies any kind of rational logic, it is still one hell of an action set piece with the cars as characters, chewing up the scenery.

Done early in his career (he had a cameo in Mann’s Thief previously), William Petersen is not afraid to play an unlikable character. When we first meet Chance he’s a semi-respectable risk-taker but as the film progresses it becomes readily apparent that he doesn’t care about anyone and anything else except nailing Masters and avenging the death of his partner. He has a female informant (Darlanne Fluegel) that gives him tips and has sex with on a semi-regular basis. Her only value to him is for information and sex. He has outright contempt for authority and treats his partner like crap. Petersen fully commits to the character and brings an intensity that would also be evident in his next film, Manhunter (1986). In some respects, Chance is actually worse than Masters. At least, he has his own code that he adheres to, while Chance will do anything no matter how illegal to achieve his goal. There is a kamikaze-like air to Chance, like he has some kind of suicidal death wish. He pushes himself and those around him to the limit. Even though his personal life is staring him in his face it’s still irrelevant. He wants to exist on a different plane of existence than everyone else. His personal life is just a distraction to him.

Fresh from his bad guy role in Streets of Fire (1984), Willem Dafoe plays a different kind of sociopath in To Live and Die in L.A. Masters shows little to no emotion and Dafoe gives him a whiff of pretension, like he knowingly thinks of himself as some kind of artist but really he’s a sadistic crook who’s all about making money both real and fake. Dafoe brings the right amount of cold detachment to his character. Masters is an efficient criminal who perfectly internalizes his emotions making him incredibly hard to read — ideal for his chosen profession. The irony is that he is ultimately consumed by obsessions – literally and figuratively.

Director William Friedkin was given former Secret Service agent and author Gerald Petievich’s novel, To Live and Die in L.A., in manuscript form. While reading it, the filmmaker found himself drawn to the fact that “Petievich created these characters with feet of clay, and he’s one of them.” Once Friedkin struck a deal for the film rights to the book, Petievich was investigated by his direct rival for an impending office promotion and felt that there was, “a lot of resentment against me for making the movie,” and “some animosity against me in the Secret Service” by the agent in the Los Angeles field office who suddenly resigned a few weeks after initiating the investigation.

The screenplay took the basic plot, characters and much of the dialogue from Petievich’s novel but Friedkin added the opening terrorist sequence, the car chase and clearer and earlier focus on the cat and mouse game between Chance and Masters. Petievich says that Friedkin wrote a number of scenes but when there was a new scene or a story that needed to be changed he wrote it. The director admits that the writer created the characters and the situations and that he used a lot of the book’s dialogue but that he wrote the script and not Petievich.

SLM Productions, a tribunal of financiers, worked with Friedkin on a ten-picture, $100 million deal with 20th Century Fox, but when the studio was purchased by Rupert Murdoch one of the financiers pulled the deal and took it to MGM. After all the dust settled, Friedkin was given an $8 million budget to work with and this forced him to realize that To Live and Die in L.A. would have no movie stars in it. William Petersen was acting in Canada when he was asked to fly to New York City and meet with Friedkin. Half a page into his reading, the director told him he had the job. Petersen called fellow Chicago actor John Pankow and told him about the film. He brought Pankow to Friedkin’s apartment the next day and recommended him for the role of Vukovich.

For the money-making sequences, Friedkin consulted actual counterfeiters who had done time in prison with the film’s “consultant” actually doing the shots that did not show actor Willem Dafoe on camera even though he admitted to learning how to actually print money in preparation for his role. In fact, the son of one of the crew members tried to use some of the prop money to buy candy at a local store and was busted. Friedkin screened a workprint of To Live and Die in L.A. for three FBI agents from Washington, D.C. and they interviewed 12-15 crew members. The director even offered to show the film to the Secretary of the Treasury and take out anything that was a danger to national security. That was the last the production heard from the government.

As he did with The French Connection, Friedkin shot everything on location and worked very fast, often using the first take so as to give a sense of immediacy. He was not crazy about letting his actors rehearse and instead created situations where the actors thought they were rehearsing but actually the cameras were rolling. He allowed Petersen and actress Darlanne Fleugel devise their own blocking and then told cinematographer Robby Muller, “Just shoot them. Try and keep them in the frame. If they’re not in the frame, they’re not in the movie. That’s their problem.” An example of this is the scene where Chance visits Ruthie at the bar where she works. As he did with The French Connection, Friedkin wasn’t afraid to take chances during filming. For example, the scene where Chance runs along the top of the dividers between the airport terminal’s moving sidewalks was done without the airport police’s permission. This was mainly for the actor’s safety as the airport’s insurance would not have covered him had he been hurt. Petersen told Friedkin that they should do the stunt anyway and so the director staged it as a rehearsal but had the cameras rolling. Not surprisingly, this angered airport officials and got the production in hot water.

The film’s exciting wrong-way freeway chase had its genesis on February 25, 1963 when Friedkin was driving home from a wedding in Chicago. He fell asleep at the wheel of his vehicle and woke up in the wrong lane with oncoming traffic heading straight at him. He swerved back to his side of the road and for the next 20 years wondered how he was going to use it in a film. At the time of filming it, Friedkin was working with a stripped down crew and he told stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker that if they couldn’t top the car chase in The French Connection then he wouldn’t use it. Interestingly, Petersen did a lot of his own driving, which would explain Pankow’s stressed out reactions, which were genuine. The chase took 22 days to shoot including three weekends where sections of the Long Beach Freeway were closed for four hours at a time to allow the crew to stage the chaotic chase.

In regards to the film’s infamous ending, as early as the day he cast Petersen, Friedkin thought about killing off Chance towards the end of the film, but according to editor Bud Smith, Vukovich was supposed to be the one who got killed. Friedkin approached Smith and told him about his ending. The executives at SLM Productions were divided with half wanting Chance to die and the other for him to live. To pacify them, Friedkin and second unit cinematographer Robert Yeoman shot an alternate ending with Petersen and Pankow. The director previewed it and then cut it out of the film.

After recording their first album, Wang Chung felt pressured to write commercial music. They asked their manager to look for soundtrack work and he came back with an offer from Friedkin. After he heard and enjoyed “Wait” off their 1984 album Points on the Curve, Friedkin wanted to have Wang Chung score To Live and Die in L.A. In particular, it was “the element of drama and tension” that he wanted in his film, according to the band’s lead singer Jack Hues. The band didn’t want to record a conventional soundtrack and Friedkin was willing to give them that creative freedom. He asked them to write and record 90 minutes of orchestral music despite not having seen any footage. They wrote the music and spent two weeks recording it. The band created a large instrumental piece called, “City of Angels,” and other cues grew out of it. They also wrote separate songs, like “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming” after most of the instrumental work was complete. After seeing a rough cut of the film with their music integrated, the band realized that a title song was missing and wrote “To Live and Die in L.A.

Not surprisingly, To Live and Die in L.A. received mixed to negative reviews. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Today, in the dazzling, superficial style that Mr. Friedkin has so thoroughly mastered, it's the car chases and shootouts and eye-catching settings that are truly the heart of the matter.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, "To Live and Die in L.A. will live briefly and die quickly in L.A., where God hath no wrath like a studio executive with bad grosses. Then again, perhaps it's unfair to hold this overheated and recklessly violent movie to the high standard established by Starsky and Hutch.” Time magazine didn’t like its “brutal, bloated car-chase sequence pilfered from Friedkin's nifty The French Connection", and called it "a fetid movie hybrid: Miami Vile.”

However, Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, "[T]he movie is also first-rate. The direction is the key. Friedkin has made some good movies ... and some bad ones. This is his comeback, showing the depth and skill of the early pictures.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Shot with gritty flamboyance by Robby Muller, cast with a fine eye for fresh, tough-guy faces, To Live and Die in L.A. may be fake savage, but it's fun.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Pity poor Los Angeles: first the San Andreas fault and now this. The thing about it is, To Live and Die in L.A., for all its amorality and downright immorality, is a cracker-jack thriller, tense and exciting and unpredictable, and more grimy fun than any moralist will want it to be.”

After a lull in his filmmaking career, Friedkin came back with a vengeance with To Live and Die in L.A. He created an intense, harder-edged and visceral crime thriller that is of its time and out of time. The style and music are pure 1980s but the nihilism is reminiscent of the 1970s. Sure, the screenplay is riddled with clichés — the loose cannon agent and the partner who is killed only days before he retires — but Friedkin makes it all seem fresh and exciting because he believes in the material completely and goes for it all the way down the line. To Live and Die in L.A. was William Friedkin’s last great film. He has shown the occasional glimmer of brilliance (most notably with The Hunted) but has failed to deliver anything on the level of his 1985 film. However, his influence can be felt in films, like Narc (2003), which present a gritty world filled with morally questionable characters.

For more on this film, check out John Kenneth Muir's awesome take on the film and Jeremy Richey's tribute to it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DVD of the Week: Shock Corridor/The Naked Kiss: Criterion Collection

Samuel Fuller was one of the quintessential genre directors working in Hollywood during the 1950s as he brought his trademark two-fisted gusto to genres like the film noir (Pickup on South Street), the war film (The Steel Helmet), and the western (Forty Guns). In the early 1960s, he managed to independently finance two pulp masterpieces, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). On the surface, they are unabashed genre films but lurking underneath Fuller injected powerful commentaries on then-contemporary social issues. In the case of Shock Corridor, he used the premise of a reporter going undercover as a patient in a mental hospital to investigate a murder to comment on the issue of racism in America.

Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is a reporter for the Daily Globe newspaper and who dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize by committing himself to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder. His girlfriend stripper Cathy (Constance Towers) is worried that being surrounded by all kinds of crazy people will have a bad effect on him. As she tells him at one point, she’s “fed up playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare.” Cathy is the voice of reason to Johnny’s cocky hubris, telling him, “Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize.” But of course, he doesn’t listen and is confident that he can pull this off while also getting his fame and fortune.

Once inside, Johnny meets a colorful collection of patients, like the man who thinks he’s an Italian opera singer, a man proud of being impotent, another one who believes he’s a general in the American Civil War, and, most intriguingly, an African-American who believes he’s a racist white man. Naturally, prolonged exposure to all of this madness begins to put the zap on Johnny as he gradually loses touch with reality. Fuller, the master of heightened melodrama, cranks it up another notch with this film as evident in the scenes where Cathy tries to get Johnny out of the hospital after six weeks, or when he finally snaps his cap, culminating in a show-stopping sequence that only Fuller could get away with.

At times, Shock Corridor resembles a horror film, like when Johnny wanders into a room full of female patients that swarm and attack him while he screams in terror. Fuller’s film is a fascinating look at what Barton Fink (1991) called, “the life of the mind,” and the thin line between sanity and madness.

As Robert Polito wisely observes in the DVD liner notes for the Criterion Collection edition of The Naked Kiss (1964), Samuel Fuller’s film fuses the melodrama of Douglas Sirk with the pulpy prose of Russ Meyer. The result is what Polito calls a “noirish fairy tale” as a former prostitute relocates to suburbia in an attempt to reinvent herself. However, all kinds of dirty secrets lurk underneath the town’s all-American surface.

The film opens in typical Fuller fashion as Kelly (Towers) beats her drunken pimp with her purse. The director cuts back and forth from both combatants’ point-of-view and then comes the punchline: the pimp reaches out and grabs Kelly’s hair and it’s a wig (?!) revealing her bald head! Welcome to The Naked Kiss. She beats him into submission only so she can take the money he owes her. If this ballsy prologue doesn’t grab you then nothing will.

Two years later, Kelly relocates to Grantville, a nice-enough looking town where local police detective Griff (Anthony Eisley) runs a punk out of town but at least has the decency to give the guy a couple of bucks before sending him packing on a bus. Kelly has reinvented herself as a saleslady for Angel Foam champagne, a beverage that “goes down like liquid gold and it comes up like slow dynamite.”

She and Griff meet at the bus terminal and hit it off immediately. After a one-night stand, he sends her packing – he has no illusions about who she is – but Kelly ignores him and goes to stay at a boarding house in town. She reinvents herself yet again by getting a job as a nurse’s aide in the children’s ward at the local hospital, much to Griff’s chagrin. Kelly soon finds her new way of life threatened by a terrible secret harbored by one of the townsfolk.

In Shock Corridor (1963), Constance Towers had a supporting role but with The Naked Kiss, Fuller cast her as the lead and she’s fantastic as a woman with a checkered past trying to start over. She demonstrates quite a good range as an actress, from the tough dame in the prologue, to the empathetic caregiver working with children at the hospital. Towers gets you to sympathize with Kelly and care about what happens to her. With The Naked Kiss, Fuller shows a slightly softer side but his film is still populated by tough-talking characters. It’s a pulp B-movie with a heart and anchored by a rock solid performance by Towers.

Special Features:

Included on the Shock Corridor DVD is the excellent documentary, The Typewriter, the Rife and the Movie Camera, about the life and career of Fuller with the likes of Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese talking about the man’s influence on them and others. Fuller is as gleefully hard-boiled as his films as he discusses his philosophy about life and cinema, which, not surprisingly, are the same.

There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She talks about how she met Fuller, her impressions of him and what it was like working on his films, most notably, Shock Corridor.

Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.

On The Naked Kiss DVD, there is an interview with Samuel Fuller from the French television program Cinema Cinemas in 1987. He looks over old photographs of himself and recounts colorful anecdotes about his life and working on various films.

The South Bank Show: Sam Fuller” is a 30-minute interview from a British talk show from 1983. He is interviewed in his home in a room jam-packed with books and screenplays, many of which were never filmed.

There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She recounts her parents’ reaction to playing a prostitute in The Naked Kiss. She also talks about the film’s dynamic opening and how it was achieved. This is an excellent interview and she is an engaging subject.

Also included is an interview with Fuller for Cineastes de Notre Temps, a French T.V. show in 1967. There is some fantastic vintage footage of the man talking about his life and films.

Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Rocketeer

With the massive commercial success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), other Hollywood studios scrambled to find their own comic book franchise in the hopes of replicating the boffo box office of the Caped Crusader. With the notable exception of Dick Tracy (1990), most of these films failed to appeal to a mainstream audience. These included pulp serial heroes The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996), and the independent comic book The Rocketeer. Originally created by the late Dave Stevens, it paid homage to the classic pulp serials of the 1930s. For some reason, Disney decided that it would be their tent-pole summer blockbuster for 1991, cast two unproven leads – Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly – and hired Steven Spielberg protégé, Joe Johnston to direct. Despite promoting the hell out of it and spending a ton of money on merchandising, The Rocketeer (1991) underperformed at the box office.

It’s a shame because out of the lot of retro comic book films done in the 1990s, The Rocketeer was the best one and the most faithful to its source material. While both The Shadow and The Phantom looked great, they were flawed either in casting or with their screenplays while Dick Tracy was top-heavy with villains and director (and star) Warren Beatty’s ego, but The Rocketeer had the advantage of its creator actually being involved in bringing his vision to the big screen. The end result was a fun, engaging B-movie straight out Classic Hollywood Cinema albeit with A-list production values. The film has quietly cultivated a cult following and deserves to be rediscovered.

Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is a young, hotshot pilot who races planes for a living with the help of his trusted mechanic and good friend Peevy (Alan Arkin). One day, while out testing his new plane, Cliff stumbles across an experimental jetpack stolen from Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Soon, he finds himself mixed up with the FBI, who want to recover it, and unscrupulous gangsters who stole it in the first place. Also thrown into the mix is Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), an Errol Flynn-type matinee idol who wants the jetpack for his own nefarious agenda. Cliff’s beautiful girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) is an aspiring actress who catches Sinclair’s eye which further complicates Cliff’s life. With Peevy’s help, Cliff figures out how to use the jetpack and fashions himself an alter ego by the name of the Rocketeer.

Billy Campbell does a fine job as the scrappy Cliff Secord. He certainly looks the part and has great chemistry with co-star Jennifer Connelly (they fell in love while making the film). Connelly plays Jenny as the gorgeous girl-next-door and looks like she stepped out of a 1930s film. Jenny loves Cliff but dreams of being a movie star, not hanging around the airfield. Connelly, with her curvy figure, shows off her outfits well and does the best with what is ostensibly a damsel in distress role.

Timothy Dalton has a lot of fun playing the dashing cad as evident in the scene where he “accidentally” wounds a fellow actor during filming for stealing a scene form him. Sinclair is a vain movie star with big plans and there’s a glimmer in Dalton’s eye as he relishes playing the dastardly baddie. Alan Arkin is also good in the role of Peevy – part absent-minded professor-type and part father figure to Cliff.

The Rocketeer features a solid supporting cast with the likes of Ed Lauter playing a no-nonsense FBI agent, Terry O’Quinn as the brilliant Howard Hughes, Jon Polito as the money-grubbing airfield owner, and Paul Sorvino as a blustery gangster begrudgingly in league with Sinclair. His casting is a nice nod to the patriarchal mobster he played in GoodFellas (1990) only a lot less menacing (this is Disney after all). The always entertaining O’Quinn is particularly fun to watch as a dashing Hughes that could have easily stepped out of Francis Ford Coppola’s love letter to American ingenuity, Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).

The attention to period detail, in particular the vintage planes, is one The Rocketeer’s strengths. The film gets it right with the clothes that people wear and how they speak so that you feel transported back to this era in a way that The Phantom and The Shadow were unable to do. The recreation of old school opulence is fantastic as evident in the South Seas nightclub sequence where Sinclair works his charms on Jenny. Even Joe Johnston’s direction feels like a throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking as he gives the flying sequences the proper visual flair that they deserve. He wisely keeps things simple, never trying to get too fancy or show-offy as he takes a page out of his mentor, Steven Spielberg’s book. There’s never any confusion as to what is happening or where everyone is – something that seems to be missing from a lot of action films thanks to the popularity of the Bourne films. Johnston is an interesting journeyman director who’s best work is old school action/adventure films, like Hidalgo (2004), or slice-of-life Americana, like October Sky (1999), which is why he was the wrong choice to helm the ill-fated reboot of The Wolfman (2010) and the right director for the upcoming Captain America film.

Filmmaker Steve Miner (Friday the 13th, Parts II and III) was the first person to option the film rights to Dave Stevens’ independent comic book The Rocketeer but he ended up straying too far from the original concept and his version died an early death. Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo (Trancers and Zone Troopers) were given the option in 1985. Stevens liked them because “their ideas for The Rocketeer were heartfelt and affectionate tributes to the 1930’s with all the right dialogue and atmosphere. Most people would approach my characters contemporarily, but Danny and Paul saw them as pre-war mugs.” Their subsequent screenplay kept the comic book’s basic plot intact but fleshed it out to include the Hollywood setting and the climactic battle against a Nazi zeppelin. They also tweaked Cliff’s girlfriend to avoid comparisons (and legal hassles) to Bettie Page (Stevens’ original inspiration), changing her from a nude pin-up model to a Hollywood extra while also changing her name from Betty to Jenny.

Bilson and DeMeo submitted their seven-page outline to Disney in 1986. They studio put the script through an endless series of revisions and, at one point, frustrated by the seemingly endless process, the two screenwriters talked to Stevens about doing The Rocketeer as a smaller film shot in black and white. The involvement of Disney put the project on a much bigger level as the writers remembered, “you can imagine the commitment Disney was making to develop a series of movies around a character. They even called it their Raiders of the Lost Ark.” With Stevens’ input, Bilson and DeMeo developed their script with director William Dear (Harry and the Hendersons) who changed the zeppelin at the film’s climax to a submarine. Over five years, the mercurial studio fired and rehired Bilson and DeMeo three times. DeMeo said, “Disney felt that they needed a different approach to the script, which meant bringing in someone else. But those scripts were thrown out, and we were always brought back on.”

They found this way of working very frustrating as the studio would like “excised dialogue three months later. Scenes that had been thrown out two years ago were put back in. what was the point?” Disney’s biggest problem with the script was all of the period slang peppered throughout. Executives were worried that audiences wouldn’t understand what the characters were saying. One of their more significant revisions over this time period was to make Cliff and Jenny’s “attraction more believable … how do we bring Jenny into the story and revolve it around her, and not just create someone who’s kidnapped and has to be saved?” DeMeo said. In 1990, their third major rewrite finally got the greenlight from Disney. However, when the studio acquired the rights to the Dick Tracy film from Universal Studios, DeMeo was worried that executives would dump The Rocketeer in favor of the much more high-profile project. However, when Dick Tracy failed to perform as well at the box office as Disney had hoped, DeMeo’s fears subsided.

All kinds of actors were considered for the role of Cliff Secord, including Bill Paxton, who almost got it, and Vincent D’Onofrio, who was offered the role but turned it down. Johnston wanted to cast an unknown but the studio wanted a Tom Cruise. According to the director, “Fortunately, all of the people they wanted didn’t want to do it.” Finally, Billy Campbell was cast as Cliff. Prior to this film, his biggest role to date was regular on the Michael Mann-produced television show, Crime Story. For the role of Jenny, Sherilyn Fenn, Kelly Preston, Diane Lane, and Elizabeth McGovern were all considered but lost out to Jennifer Connelly, fresh from making the comedy, Career Opportunities (1991). Dave Stevens wanted Lloyd Bridges to play Peevy but he turned the film down and Alan Arkin was cast instead. The Neville Sinclair role was offered to Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance before Timothy Dalton accepted the role.

Campbell wasn’t familiar with Stevens’ comic book when he got the part but quickly read it and books on aviation while also listening to period music. The actor also had a fear of flying but overcame it with the help of the film’s aerial coordinator Craig Hosking. To ensure Campbell’s safety, he was doubled for almost all of the Rocketeer’s flying sequences. Hosking said, “What makes The Rocketeer so unique was having several one-of-a-kind planes that hadn’t flown in years,” and this included a 1916 standard bi-wing, round-nosed, small-winged Gee Bee plane.

The numerous delays forced William Dear to leave the production and director Joe Johnston signed on to direct. He was a fan of the comic book and when he inquired about its film rights was told that Disney already had it in development. After making Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), he was not eager to work with Disney again because of the battles he had with the studio. However, in order to get a chance to direct Honey he had to sign a contract giving the studio the option for two more films – standard industry practice.” They’ll sign anybody to a three-picture deal, just in case you do a good movie,” Johnston said.

After Honey was a big box office hit, he was offered movies like White Fang (1991) and Arachnophobia (1990) – all of which he turned down. It became obvious that Disney was going to hold Johnston to his commitment. Fortunately, he wanted to direct The Rocketeer. Johnston said, “One of the great appeals of Stevens’ work was his attention to detail, which really placed the reader in the period. I’ve tried to do the same thing cinematically.” Pre-production on the film started in early 1990 with producer Larry Franco in charge of securing locations for the film. He found an abandoned World War II landing strip in Santa Maria, which the filmmakers used to build the mythical Chaplin Air Field. The Rocketeer’s attack on the Nazi zeppelin was filmed near the Magic Mountain amusement park in Indian Dunes. The film was shot over 96 days and ended up going over schedule due to weather and mechanical problems.

When the production started, the studio agreed to a $25 million budget and 76-day shooting schedule despite the original schedule was set for 96 days. Johnston knew it would cost more and take longer. In anticipation of this, he scheduled scenes that would take more time and cost more money at the end of the shoot so that it would cost the studio more to fire him then to let him finish. After all the dust settled, the budget escalated and the film took 96 days to shoot. Disney also inundated him with written notes about a variety of issues, from costumes to the script. The director’s solution was to have his assistant read them, summarize them and write replies for him. He also fought the studio over the tone of the film. Originally, it was going to be geared more towards adults and then Disney changed their minds and wanted to attract families instead.

The Rocketeer received mixed to positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The virtues of the movie are in its wide-eyed credulity, its sense of wonder.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers enjoyed Timothy Dalton’s performance: “An elegant if stiff James Bond, Dalton finally loosens up onscreen and steals every scene he's in. He's a swashbuckling Dr. Strangelove.” Leonard Maltin concurred and found that the film, “captures the look of the '30s, as well as the gee-whiz innocence of Saturday matinée serials, but it's talky and takes too much time to get where it's going. Dalton has fun as a villain patterned after Errol Flynn.”

However, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Cliff's good deeds never have any particular stature, even though they supposedly involve earthshaking world affairs. Within the film itself, the polarities of good and evil are too indistinct to matter. Any hint of real risk or sacrifice comes from the other, better films that are invoked.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Partly by design, partly by accident, The Rocketeer seems better suited to an audience of kiddies than adults. It stays on its feet and doesn't ask too much of us, and that may be enticement enough for younger folks. It's a humble little item, actually, easily digested and easily forgotten.”

Like The Right Stuff (1983) before it, The Rocketeer is a love letter to the wonders of aviation and the brave souls that risked their lives pushing the envelope. In a nice touch, Cliff even chews Beeman’s gum, the same kind that Chuck Yeager uses in The Right Stuff. The comic book is masterfully translated to the big screen, right down to recreating the iconic Bull Dog Diner. The filmmakers also got all the details of Cliff and his alter ego right, including the casting of Billy Campbell. The same goes for Jenny, although, because Disney backed the film, they downplayed the blatant homage her character was to famous pin-up model Bettie Page. With Dave Stevens untimely passing in 2008, watching this film is now a bittersweet experience but there is some comfort in that at least he got to see his prized creation brought vividly to life even if failed to catch on with the mainstream movie-going public. The Rocketeer is flat-out wholesome fun with nothing more on its mind than to tell an entertaining story and take us on an exciting adventure.

Also, check Mr. Peel's take on the film at his blog.


Arar, Yardeina. “Honey…They Shrunk His Rocketeer Budget.” Los Angeles Daily News. June 24, 1991.

Bonin, Liane. “Way of the Hunk.” Entertainment Weekly. September 8, 2000.

Cagle, Jess. “Bill Paxton.” Entertainment Weekly. July 19, 1991.

“Blast Off!” Entertainment Weekly. July 12, 1991.

Rocketeer to the Rescue.” Prevue. August 1991

Schweiger, Daniel. “Rocketeer.” Cinefantastique. August 1991.