Captain America: The First Avenger debuts this week, but it’s not the director’s first foray into period comic book action. Twenty years ago, the October Sky director helmed The Rocketeer, a film that tanked at the box office but maintains something of a cult following today.
This trailer gives away most of the movie’s secrets, but since this is a formulaic action film, it really doesn’t matter:
It’s a film for which I have an abiding affection, fueled perhaps partly out of nostalgia. Nevertheless, the movie certainly has numerous more objective merits. In advance of Captain America, which covers much of the same terrain, here’s a rough guide to some of the movie’s positives (and negatives) . . .
Tone) Roger Ebert put it best in his review of the film: “Raiders Of The Lost Ark took the Saturday afternoon serials of the late 1930s and 1940s as an inspiration, while The Rocketeer takes them as a model. Indy kidded them, The Rocketeer copies them.” Were this movie filmed today, it would be loaded with cheeky in-jokes and winking references to comic book mythology. The Rocketeer has an authenticity and sincerity that most contemporary blockbusters lack. Whether a film of such endearing directness would be possible in today’s market is debatable, but it does lend the film a lasting freshness.
The Cast) Just try to imagine the Indiana Jones films with Tom Selleck in the lead role, as originally planned. Would they still be great entertainment? Probably. Would the character be a film icon? Probably not. The same complaint could be made here – Bill Campbell, appearing in the title role, is devoid of charisma, presence, or humor. Given the film’s pulp heritage and “aw shucks” tone, this is not all-together inappropriate, but one wishes the inventive, compulsively watchable Johnny Depp could have landed the role (as was once intended).
Timothy Dalton was always pilloried as the humorless Bond (“license to bore” is the standard joke), but he’s got rakish charm to spare in the role of the Errol Flynn-esque baddy, Neville Sinclair. He’s as splendid an example of a “champagne villain” as you’re likely to find in a comic book adventure. The only real misstep here is that Paul Sorvino’s secondary heavy Eddie Valentine is far too sympathetic. The brutish thug role is taken by the Rondo Hatton-inspired hitman Lothar, leaving Sorvino little to do but fume at Sinclair’s bully-boy tactics. The avuncular Sorvino can certainly project menace (check out Goodfellas again if you don’t believe me), but the script doesn’t give him the opportunity.
The Music) This is “hired gun” type music for Oscar-winning composer James Horner, who these days seems more interested in texture and ethnic flavor than melody. And undoubtedly, his more recent music is more challenging and musically interesting, but his soaring theme music here is tremendously crowd-pleasing and suits the material as snugly as a Rocketeer helmet. His hoe-down variation of the Rocketeer theme during the first big setpiece is pure musical fun. With due respect to Danny Elfman, James Horner is still the greatest film music talent of his generation, and The Rocketeer is one of his most listenable and accessible works.
Random Fun) Lost’s Terry O’Quinn appears here in the very un-Locke-like role of Howard Hughes, and keep your eyes peeled for a brief appearance by Melora Hardin (The Office) as a lounge singer. Plus, the thug’s method of dispensing victims – literally folding them in half so their legs are draped over their heads – is an agreeably loopy, macabre touch. Other creative bits include a house that has been so besieged by tommy gun bullets that it actually collapses, and an unexpected appearance by a specially-crafted propaganda cartoon.
Though it hardly lives up to the “airborne Indiana Jones” feel the filmmakers were probably going for, The Rocketeer is still classic summer fun. If Joe Johnston makes Captain America as entertaining as his first comic book effort, summer ’11 will have at least one popcorn movie worth adding to your collection.