Another massive flop! Can you spot a trend emerging?
But first a short aside. A couple of months ago I was walking home late at night through an eerily still and sodium lit London, with only the odd urban fox for company. I stepped off the curb to cross an entirely empty road and suddenly a man appeared in front of me, flying. He held an upright white disk between his feet, rim to the floor, and he snaked silently past me a foot off the ground at high speed and as our eyes met he nodded solemnly like he wasn’t a unicyclist in a suburban prequel to Tron, and then he was gone. Forget all those kids on their ersatz hoverboards hanging around outside KFC, this felt like the real deal. All the hair on the back of my neck stood up, because I suddenly realised I was in fact living in the future. Remember when we were promised jet packs?
And what’s better than a jet pack in the future? A jet pack in the past of course! Because the past isn’t night buses and overturned bins and the uncomfortable feeling that you’re probably too old to be limping home in uncomfortable shoes at 3 o’clock in the morning. The past is glamour! It’s curvaceous cars with running boards, it’s very big cameras with even bigger flashbulbs and newsboys shouting ‘Extra, extra!’, it’s rolled hair with perfect red lipstick to go out to the movies with your best guy. It’s a place where your best friend can make you anything you need overnight with a spot welder and a fretsaw, and when in doubt, a stick of gum will save you. It’s back when everything was new and fresh and exciting. It’s the Rocketeer!
Ah, I love it, I really do. It opened head to head with Terminator 2 back in 1991 and it never stood a chance. It grew out of a vaguely subversive indie comic series but had all of the rebellious bits (including copious nudity and light BDSM) removed to cash in on the success of Indiana Jones, which was a proper 30’s adventure serial only with a hugely charismatic lead, some non-threatening gender stereotype inversion, proper jokes and the odd wink to self-awareness for the film students.
The Rocketeer doesn’t really have any of those things – it’s essentially a 30’s adventure serial with absolutely nothing added or taken away and it’s why before you even hold it up to Indie it was never going to stand up against a molten Robert Patrick and Arnie in some really cool sunglasses. But perhaps that’s why I like it. Why not have a dose of old fashioned now and again? If we’re all going to die in a nuclear apocalypse when the machines rise up against us, why not indulge in a bit of good old fashioned pluck and moxie to tide us over?
It’s 1938 and the world stands poised on the brink of a World War (well, some of the world was on the brink. America had lost their car keys, or something, and would totally catch Europe up just as soon as they remembered where they put them). Nazis have stolen the design of a jet pack from Howard Hughes (thankfully not yet the urine hoarding, nail clipper avoiding version) and have alarming plans to mount airborne invasionary forces (illustrated by an animated propaganda film that stylistically falls somewhere between the opening credits to Mysterious Cities of Gold and Dad’s Army). After the prototype jet pack falls improbably into the hands of Cliff, our square jawed pilot hero, he must prevent it from falling into enemy hands whilst at the same time stopping his aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny from also falling into enemy hands, here represented by a magnificently dinner-suited Timothy Dalton using the cover of an Errol Flynn type matinee idol to conceal his dastardly intentions. There’s some other stuff involving mobsters which you can mostly just ignore if you aren’t feeling too alert, and you can still have a fine old time.
Inevitably all retrospective writing about this film compares it to the Marvel superheroes, but it’s not the granddaddy of Iron Man or the West Coast cousin of Captain America or anything like that. It’s not a superhero film at all really, in that there’s some world events happening off stage, but the Rocket Pack is – whisper it – not actually a very effective gadget given its unreliability. So it’s mostly about Cliff saving Jenny through a combination of creeping around in a waiter’s uniform and handing out the odd right cross. In fact in spirit it’s more like Dick Tracy than anything Marvel ever pulled out of the bag (and if you’d like me to talk about Dick Tracy I entirely could, though even I’ll admit it seems pretty unlikely that you’d want me to).
The cast are so entirely appealing. Bill Campbell, an unknown before he shot this (and therefore an equal unknown after he shot this) is far too handsome to be real. He might be a bit dull, but there’s not many people who could pull off a date night outfit of riding boots, jodhpurs and what appears to be a cricket jumper, so all power to him.
Jennifer Connelly, who was 20 at the time and fresh off dealing with David Bowie’s disturbingly tight lycra trousers in Labyrinth, is ridiculously beautiful. There’s something very satisfying about knowing she grew up not to be some Lindsay Lohan nightmare, but took the high road by depressing us all in Requiem for a Dream and the like whilst simultaneously living a life of (I fondly imagine) quiet domestic bliss with Paul Bettany and a bundle of unfairly attractive children in Brooklyn.
Timothy Dalton, presumably thanking his stars that the work hadn’t entirely dried up following the curse of the ex-James Bonds, is moustache-twirlingly perfect and the purveyor of both the world’s least convincing German accent and the absolute best non-specific, use-it-anywhere chat up line in the world (‘Here’s to you. And the extraordinary way your face catches the light’). Though his subsequent lines suggest you would be wise to stay wide of anyone using it. (‘Welcome to my house’ he says soothingly, waving the smelling salts under the nose of a drugged up Jenny. ‘It’s the chloroform. The effects will pass in a moment’).
And at the end there’s a Zeppelin! Of course there is! Even Indiana Jones knew the power of an airship, but The Rocketeer goes one better by having a mid-air rescue by a prototype helicopter, thus proving the maxim that to not have someone clinging to a rope ladder being flown over the blazing remains of a 200 foot balloon filled with explosive gas would be an egregious waste of a special effects budget.
None of this actually explains why I like it – there were a lot of other attempts to cash in on Indiana Jones in the 90’s, and all of them, from Billy Zane and his purple foam pecs in The Phantom to Alec Baldwin and his objectionable mysteries-of-the-orient undertones in The Shadow were basically rubbish (I maintain my affection for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but more on that another time). In the end, I think I’m just a sucker for nostalgia, and this whole film is built on it in a way that Indiana Jones was too savvy to rely on. Raiders of the Lost Arc is set two years before The Rocketeer, but even aside from the inexorable rise of the Third Reich, it’s a world where archaeologists are corrupt bounty hunters and teaching jobs are crushingly dull and most people are out for the money and the US government will maintain their shady warehouses indefinitely.
The Rocketeer has no such qualms. America is damn near perfect, and if it wasn’t for those pesky Nazis, everything would be just dandy. Hollywoodland is on the rise (‘Prepare to die, that we may finally know the identity of the laughing bandit!’). Cliff and Jenny’s careers may be stalling but all it would take would be one big break – a decent part for Jenny, a new plane for Cliff – for the magic to happen. LA’s dusty back lanes and lush orange groves are unspoilt by highways and airports and sprawling development. In diners inexplicably shaped like giant animal heads, freckled tomboys in overalls run around while old men, also in overalls, drink coffee served by motherly waitresses and reminisce about their flying careers in the Great War (though those missing car keys seem to have been a problem even back then). Even the gun-toting mobsters are chest-swellingly patriotic (‘I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American, and I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi!’).
So unashamed nostalgia does it for me, apparently. Also perhaps just all those planes. It was a time when commercial flight was still in its infancy and pilots like Cliff were the heart-throbs of their day, risking life and limb to defy gravity in seemingly impossible ways. The diesel punk curves of the Rocket Pack itself but also all these ridiculously dangerous airships and bi-planes seemingly made of balsa wood and canvas and the Leonard Da Vinci style helicopter and the stubby, lethal looking stunt planes make Howard Hughes a suddenly logical addition to The Rocketeer. His vision of flight – when flying still meant freedom and joy and a chance to see the world in a whole new way – permeates this whole film, however silly it may be.
When the Rocket Pack is mended on the fly with a stick of Beeman’s chewing gum, it’s a lovely wink to the wider world of aviation, Beeman’s being the legendary gum of choice for early pilots. Amelia Earhart used it to stop her ears popping. Chuck Yeager was chewing it when he broke the sound barrier. I’m a sucker for the romance of flight, and this tiny wink feels just for me. The Rocketeer may have been a flop, but what can I say? Perhaps I’m just a sucker for flops as well.
Images © Disney via Cinemagia