In Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took the blandly enthusiastic, B-movie pulp of their youth — everything from Flash Gordon to the old cliff-hanger serials — and gave it a new, hip spin. They seemed to be winking at their material (even as they played it straight). In The Rocketeer, the folks over at Disney do just the opposite: They remove the spin — and what’s left is a piece of blandly enthusiastic, B-movie pulp.
The idea, I suspect, was to cut deliberately against the dazzle and brio of ’80s blockbusters. Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), the ’30s air-racing pilot who straps on a fire-powered jet pack invented by Howard Hughes and becomes the phantom Rocketeer, is meant to be an appealingly low-tech superhero. There’s nothing otherworldly about his flights: His double-barreled rocket pack — it looks like a small jukebox with metal breasts — runs on alcohol. And though the special effects are amusing, they aren’t particularly magical (there are lots of obvious matte shots). In one crowd-pleasing gimcrack of a sequence, Cliff jets along the Southern California countryside, buzzing through wheat fields and skipping across water like a stone; the scene recalls the high-speed race through the redwoods in Return of the Jedi. But except for this and one other short scene in which he zips around an elegant restaurant, he does almost no flying — and even his best stunts feel peripheral to the rest of the movie.
The rocket pack has fallen into Cliff’s hands after being stolen by mobsters. They’re working for Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckling movie star who is actually a Nazi spy. He wants to get the rocket over to Germany so that Hitler can begin producing an entire army of flying Nazis. The Third Reich espionage plot is a naked swipe from Raiders, but what’s shocking is how flatly the movie serves it up. Adapted from the 1981 ”graphic novel” (a cult favorite among comic-book enthusiasts) and directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), The Rocketeer has no wit, no edge. As Cliff, Bill Campbell, in his double-breasted flying-ace leather, is meant to be a Gary Cooper-style dreamboat jock. But the script doesn’t provide a single line that might help Campbell establish the character as funny, charming, debonair…hell, anything. As a protagonist, Cliff is weightless. When he puts on his Art Deco insect-head helmet, he seems not so much heroic as lost and emasculated, like the hero of the 1958 sci-fi potboiler The Fly. The movie should have been called Bug Man.
Earlier this year, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio chairman of Disney, wrote an infamous memo about how Disney — and, by implication, the rest of the movie industry —drastically needed to cut costs and improve efficiency. Obliquely, he suggested that Disney’s 1990 blockbuster wannabe, Dick Tracy, was a key example of the sort of overblown extravagance he was arguing against. The Rocketeer often feels like a post-Katzenberg-memo Dick Tracy (even though it cost a reported $40 million). It’s Tracy without Warren Beatty and the pretty colors. The movie has the same wholesome old-movie ambience, the same diners and hissable crooks; one towering goon even has a prosthetic mug left over from the Tracy joke shop. The filmmakers revel in the iconography of a simpler America, playing mix-and-match with the past. They give us a ’30s production design, a ’40s nightclub singer, and a ’50s romance between Campbell and Jennifer Connelly. Here, though, the deliberately chaste, retro style comes off as a form of audience pandering — as nothing more than a marketing decision.
The supporting players have their moments. As Cliff’s mentor-mechanic, Alan Arkin gets the most out of his mildly amusing lines. He’s the only one who has the chance to show a whisper of humor, so he stands out. And Timothy Dalton shows far more looseness as a decadent villain than he’s ever had as James Bond. His performance comes to life when he slips into a German accent (though this makes absolutely no sense — was he planted in America by proto-Nazis 30 years before?). Connelly, the most dazzling ingenue in many a moon, is charming; she’s like Brooke Shields with personality. But The Rocketeer is mostly an example of pop moviemaking at its most derivative. The picture is easy enough to sit through (and little kids will probably eat it up), yet it’s so innocuous, so slackly ”innocent” and tame, that it might have been inspired by one of President Reagan’s wistful comments about the kind of movies they just don’t make anymore. Katzenberg ought to write another memo, this time about putting some life back into Disney’s product.