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Slip the surly bounds of the Earth with The Rocketeer

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader

2011-07-04


The 1990s were not an especially happy time for movies based on comic books. After the smashing success Warner Brothers had with the first Batman movie in 1989, there was a rush from other studios to duplicate that success with their own comic book films. And while the Batman sequels that followed all found certain levels of success, only non-traditional (non-superhero) comic book movies from other studios like The Crow (1994), Blade (1998) and Men in Black (1997) found a significant audience at the box office.

Other comic book movies of that time period didn't fare as well: Dick Tracy (1990) was a critical flop, Captain America (1990) was deemed so bad that it went straight to video, and The Fantastic Four (1994) was deemed even worse and skipped theaters AND video and in fact has never been officially released in any form.

But there's one comic book movie flop from the early 1990s that I think stands out from the pack; one that's fondly remembered by those who think it's an underrated gem. That movie is The Rocketeer (1991).

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer, The Rocketeer follows the exploits of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell). Cliff is a down-on-his-luck late 1930s aviator based out of Los Angeles who one day finds a rocket pack hidden in the cockpit of his plane after a mob/FBI shootout takes place on the airfield Cliff works at. Cliff and cohort Peevy (Alan Arkin) see the rocket for what it is and begin secretly making improvements and testing the device on the outskirts of L.A.. But when a fellow pilot gets into trouble it's up to Cliff to rescue him via the rocket, even if it means exposing the device to the entire world.

The mob wants the rocket they originally stole back, the FBI is trying to recover the rocket for its inventor Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) and Nazis see the device as a means of world conquest and are all after Cliff. When Nazi spy/Hollywood actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) kidnaps Cliff's girl Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) in order to trade for the rocket, it's up to Cliff to swoop in and save the day from the Ratzi menace.

Based on the comic book of the same name that was published sporadically between 1982 and the early 1990s by the late, great, Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer movie is a rare beast that both honors the source material while at the same time it expounds on the overall mythos with amazing visuals and quality story. Equal parts Indiana Jones, movie serials and the pulp magazines of the 1930s, The Rocketeer features a certain level of wonder and realism that, in my opinion, wouldn't be seen in other similar comic book movies until the release of Iron Man in 2008.

Though based on a comic book, the story of The Rocketeer is anything but what one would expect from such material. In The Rocketeer, Cliff is a normal guy with normal issues. He has problems paying his bills, finding a decent job and keeping his girlfriend happy. It's only when Cliff finds the rocket that he has the opportunity to step up to greatness, which he does without hesitation. While the rocket represents a way for Cliff to “save the day,” more importantly it gives Cliff a massive level of before unknown freedom of flight no man has yet experienced.

Unfortunately, the movie did not reach such exalted heights at the box office. The Rocketeer was a colossal flop. It cost a reported $40 million to produce and though it barely made back this cost by earning $46 million, that figure pales in comparison to the over $400 million Batman took in 1989 and the $300 million the first Superman movie did in the late 1970s. The movie ends with the hope of a sequel, but no other movie has ever been produced.

Don't feel too sad, though. Bill Campbell is currently starring in the AMC series The Killing, Jennifer Connelly is a major Hollywood star, director Joe Johnston went onto direct such hits as Jumanji (1995), Jurassic Park III (2001) and is set to release Captain America: The First Avenger later this summer, and Terry O’Quinn was, until recently, one of the stars of some huge TV show. Can’t remember the title of it… Anway, The Rocketeer is currently available on DVD. Visit me online at AlphaEcho.com.

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