"...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 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.


  1. I first saw the film when I was 10 years old. I thought it was great and it still is. Needs to be revisited.

    I loved the attention to detail it had as well as the cast and action sequences. I can't believe no one thought it was very good.

    I'm glad there's some people who think it's a good film. And I just love to see Jennifer Connelly looking all fine back then.

  2. One of my favorite comic book films, I love the idea of a flying jet pack, that sequence where Cliff goes on his first flight is still as thrilling as the first time I saw it.

    The casting on this film was pitch perfect, everyone involved was the perfect actor for the perfect role. Specially Campbell as Cliff Secord. Jennifer Connely was still voloptuous back in those days! Now she is so thin she doesnt even resemble her old self.

    One of my favorite things about this movie is its music, it reminds of the time when movies gave a fuck about a cinematic score. The kind of music that is thrills and gels perfectly with the images.

    Great flick, but as you said, along with other old time comic book heros like Dick Tracy, The Shadow and The Phantom...I guess people couldnt connect with these old characters. Had this films been made back in the 1930's and 40's well, maybe they would have been big hits back then.

    People wanted to see modern comic book characters that they knew, which is whats happening now with the success of all those Marvel and DC movies.

  3. Excellent review, J.D.! I very much agree with all your points concerning the film. It's got so much going for it, especially the two attractive leads and the eye-opening Timothy Dalton (who you see byway of this film was so short-changed by filmmakers/scripts during his OO7 stint). The other interesting aspect in THE ROCKETEER was how screenwriters used the 80s controversial (and unproven) book allegations of Errol Flynn being a fascist / Nazi spy. Also, I think you're so right about director Joe Johnston and his efforts here (and I really hope he does comes as close with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER). Lastly, where the hell is the Blu-ray Disc for the film?!? This one really needs a high definition release. Great read, my friend. Thanks.

    p.s., yeah, THE PHANTOM has its flaws (I saw it when it first came out, too). But, I picked the BD for this film and showed it to my kids late last year. They enjoyed it so much, and I overcame my initial disappointment with the film. I now have a distinct fondness this Simon Wincer flick.

  4. Again, your scaled a mountain with this deliciously marathon review, bringing in everything but the kitchen sink J.D. I do well remember liking this film in the theatre, but have never re-visited it again. (which I guess in some sense is telling) But to be fair I should seek it out on DVD, rather than relying on failing memories. Horner's score was very fine I do recall.

  5. Terrific Piece J.D.
    I have always liked this film and found all the background info you discovered fascinating. That's quite a list of actresses considered but Jennifer was the absolute perfect choice. I can't imagine anyone else in that role.

  6. thevoid99:

    I have fond memories of seeing this on the big screen and being completely dazzled and charmed by it. Loved the comic book and really felt that Johnston and co. nailed it.

    It is a damn shame that the film wasn't more successful back in the day but at least it got rediscovered on home video.

    And we are in total agreement on Jennifer Connelly.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    As you love the notion of jetpacks, I love all those old airplanes and this film is certainly a love letter to both.

    And thank you for mentioning the film's music! I ran out of space to really go into it but the score compliments the images so well and gives the proper action/adventure vibe.

    Good call on why the film wasn't more successful. People just weren't down with the retro vibe sad to say. Case in point: SKY CAPTAIN.


    I really enjoyed Dalton in this film. That and HOT FUZZ may be my two fave performances by him. Nice call on the Flynn-Nazi thing. Yeah, I hadn't thought of that before!

    And I do like many of Johnston's film and hope that he does a good job with CAPT. AMERICA. He certainly is back on familiar turf and the few pics that have come out look pretty good.

    And where is the Blu-ray special edition indeed? it is time for a deluxe special edition of this film. C'mon Criterion!

    THE PHANTOM is OK but could've been better. I actually like THE SHADOW more and someone pointed out that BATMAN BEGINS eerily mirrors it in terms of story structure and plot.

    Sam Juliano:

    Thank you my friend for the kind words. It always nice to hear from you and I'm glad you enjoyed the article and are a fan of the film. You should give it another go. And Horner's score is aces.

  7. Jeremy Richey:

    Thank you for the nice comments. I totally agree with you re: casting of Connelly. As much as I love Diane Lane, I can't imagine anyone else in that role.

  8. The Rocketeer is one of my favorite films – period! The reason it succeeds as an adaptation of Stevens comics and as a period action adventure, is the reason it did not capture the attention of a mainstream audience. The Rocketeer perfectly recreates the innocent excitement of the pre-WWII era films: when aviation was still a pioneering frontier science and there was still a clear view of America as being the best nation in the world; where hard work and quick wits could overcome all adversity.

    Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films were popular in part because he included more modern sensibilities into his films (e.g.: graphic violence and the possibility that good and evil are not that very far apart). I don’t know how involved Joe Johnson was in the casting process, but he cast all the leads perfectly. As you mention, Johnson’s attention to period detail, and particularly the aviation sequences, are without peer in any film made during that decade (the 90’s)!

    I too would instantly buy a Blu-ray copy of this film! I can’t believe Disney has not released this on DVD since 1999! Until then, I keep watching my DVD every year that I bought back in 1992. Keep on supporting these cult classics, J.D.!

  9. I've been terribly behind on writing of late. I truly looked forward to reading your take on The Rocketeer simply because I'm ashamed to say that I've never seen it and it always looked like a film I woul enjoy.

    That said, let me stary by saying I felt I would enjoy this one more than the dreaded Batman franchise. Until Nolan came along I must tell you, I really didn't care for the Burton films. Until Nolan came along I preferred the Batman TV series.

    As some have alluded here in the comments, I feel had that mask been the mask of Iron Man and the title of the film called Iron Man it would have been a bigger hit. Maybe the muted colors looked too close to Raiders Of The Lost Ark too. But then, as you mention, the vivid Dick Tracy didn't cut the mustard, but that film and its casting and such is another story I suspect.

    These concepts, the films you mentioned seemed past their sell by date. How is Green Hornet doing? Honestly I don't know. But the reviews haven't been good.

    That Terry O'Quinn gets around doesn't he JD?

    As you highlighted the attention to detail and the period looks terrific. I've always liked that from afar.

    I didn't realize this was directed by Johnston. I liked October SKy alot. Very good film. A perfect slice of life as you put it. I liked that. Did Johnston do Jurassic Park III? I think so. Entertaining.

    Anyway, your review was very interesting with all of the inside details as always. It sounds like a fun film up my alley.

  10. Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein:

    Good to see more love for this film! you are so right in regards to why the film succeeds as a faithful adaptation of Stevens' comic but failed to capture a mainstream audiece. People just don't want to see that kind of film - at least not that way it was done as opposed to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK which you wisely point out how a more contemporarized approach led to a mainstream acceptance. 'Tis true.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    You really should check out this film! I think you will fall in love with as so many of us have.

    I will say that I like the 2 films that Burton did for the BATMAN franchise. I felt he brought a quirky energy and unique take on the material that hadn't be equaled until Nolan came along and gave it a much grittier edge.

    I actually really love the look of DICK TRACY. The narrative may be a bit of a mess - too busy, too overloaded - but it is a beautiful piece of eye candy. So gorgeous to look at.

    And yes, Johnston did direct JURASSIC PARK III, a film that I rewatched a few months ago and actually enjoyed quite a bit.

    I really hope you get a chance to check out THE ROCKETEER. I'd be really curious to read your thoughts on it.

  11. This weekend 01/23/2011 Syfy ran the Rocketeer with a very VERY nice HD transfer that's much nicer than the 1999 DVD release, so someone has given it some TLC, I can only hope this is in preparation for an eventual Blu-Ray release

  12. dianebrat:

    That is great news! One can hope and it would make sense as this year marks the film's 20th anniversary so if Disney's gonna do something special for this film now would be time to do it.

    Thanks for the heads up on this.

  13. Great write-up, J.D.! I was just going through some old comics from the early '90s and saw The Rocketeer advertised on the back cover of several issues. It put me in a nostalgic mood to revisit this movie. As everyone seems to say, this is one of those films whose box office failure is kind of mystifying.

    As a heads-up, BACK ISSUE magazine will be featuring the final interview from the late Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens in their March issue along with an interview with Rocketeer movie scripters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. Should be great!

  14. Jeff Allard:

    Wow! Thank you for the heads up on that upcoming BACK ISSUE. I occasionally pick up copies of that mag and I will definitely be getting that one! Very cool...

  15. Awesome, informative review! I've been meaning to see The Rocketeer but I didn't actually know much about it. Sounds right up my alley, though, and I'm grateful for your well-researched production history!

    The fact that the screenplay is by the same people who did Trancers surprised me though, haha.

  16. Great Write-up! Rachel and I discussed this last week on Reel Insight (Jennifer Connelly week). Great memories, and it really set Connelly up as a old-school screen siren, in my opinion. Overall, the cast is terrific and I bet it holds up pretty well - I hope the 20th anniversary does lead to a re-release. YBLM

  17. Alex:

    Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the review. THE ROCKETEER is a fun film and Connelly is good in it.

    And yeah, I thought it was pretty amusing that the guys who did TRANCERS wrote this film. Very odd but they made it work!


    Thank you as well for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the review. I agree that this film and MULHOLLAND FALLS, really established (for a short while at least) Connelly as this old-school screen siren, as you put it. Shame she didn't keep that up. I can't help but thinking she would've been good in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.

  18. I've been trying to leave a comment since yesterday but haven't been able to.

    Anyway, I'm so glad le0pard13 sent me the link to your post, JD. What an excellent in-depth write-up. You summed up my sentiment about this movie, one of my favorite comic book movies ever! I saw this with my brother back in high school and we both came out of the theater absolutely loving it. LOVE the retro vibe, the performances, the jet pack flying sequences, and yeah I can't imagine someone else in Connelly's role. She looks so wholesome back then and beautifully curvy like real women should look (I agree w/ the commenter that she's so darn skinny now).

    As a card-carrying member of 'Dalton's extremely underrated' camp, I really appreciate what you say about his scene-stealing performance. He's one of the best things of an already perfectly good movie, but to me he's always convincing in any type of role, comedy, bad-assery, action, drama, you name it. He remains my fave Bond and Jane Eyre's Rochester, two VERY different characters he did extremely well.

    I find it sad too that the retro look of superhero movies weren't embraced by audience, I too like look of 'Sky Captain' and was actually hoping to see Superman done in this style one day. So yeah, I have high hopes for Joe Johnston in Capt. America. In fact, the reason I look forward to the most is because he's directing it. One thing for sure, he knows how to pick a compelling villain. I think Hugo Weaving's Red Skull is gonna be a scene-stealing role as well in that one.

    Again, well-done JD, thanks for writing this.

  19. ruth:

    Thank for stopping by. I love THE ROCKETEER and was so bitter when it underperformed and no sequel was made. I also am continually frustrated that Disney refuses to give it the special edition treatment on DVD.

    I have high hopes for Johnston's work on CAP. AMERICA. I think he's the best choice to helm that film and I really hope he brings some of the magic he captured with THE ROCKETEER on that one. The cast certainly looks good and I also look forward to seeing what Hugo Weaving does with the Red Skull. It is one of the few summer blockbusters I actually plan to see in the theaters.