Real Men Love The RocketeerByAnthony Burch April 24, 2007 - 1:00 pm |
Last time, we taught you that Real Men Love Robocop. This time, we’re here to teach you about an equally manly, equally beginning-with-the-letter-R film that time has put aside: The Rocketeer. Like Robocop, The Rocketeer is in a strange situation in time: it’s too new to be retro and nostalgic, but too old to be truly relevant. Still, though, none of this stops the film from being one of the coolest, most sadly overlooked action-adventure flicks of the 1990’s. Are you a real man? Then prepare to show your love for The Rocketeer.
All of the images used are property of the Disney Corporation, of course.
The 1930’s vibe
The 1930’s are an awesome time in American history, so long as you view them totally out of context. It was a time of prohibition, racism, pointless materialism, and a coming war – but Americans were happy. They were dancing, and drinking, and doing adventurous things (unless you weren’t white, of course, in which case you were relegated to the slums where absolutely no social opportunities were open to you, or you became a hotel janitor/bell boy).
The Rocketeer almost perfectly recreates this vibe: the costumes are awesomely period, the bad guys use tommy guns, the slang is occasionally vintage (Disney, unfortunately, forced the screenwriters to cut back on the amount of 30’s slang for fear the audience wouldn’t know that “roscoe” means “gun), and there’s nary a colored person in sight. Maybe I’m being nostalgic for an era I was never born into, but films like Indiana Jones, The Shadow, and The Rocketeer really benefit from the 1930’s setting: the characters in The Rocketeer seem more “can-do” and “gee-whiz” than they otherwise would have, thus making the film much more charming on the whole. Not to mention the fact that the setting allows from some entertaining period references (see below).
Cliff Secord hates windshields
In the very beginning of the film, Cliff Secord (our hero) is testing out the plane that will get he and his flight team into The Nationals (we’re never really told what “The Nationals” are – national what? Racing? Stunt flying? What?). After a successful few laps around the airfield, Cliff takes the plane over the interstate, where – wouldn’t you know it – some FBI agents are chasing a couple of tommy-gun-toting thugs.
One of the thugs sees Cliff flying overhead, and proceeds to shoot at the plane for literally no reason whatsoever. Don’t even begin to ask why.
Oil begins to pump out of the bullet holes in Cliff’s ride, covering up his windshield and obstructing his vision. What’s a quiet, homely guy like Cliff to do?
Punch the everliving FUCK out of the windshield, that’s what. Cliff totally mans up and drives his fist through the glass, simultaneously freeing up his vision and giving him a painful dose of 80 mph wind right into his face.
Real men don’t eject: they punch things until they start to work again. I know this. You know this. Cliff Secord knows this.
Jennifer Connelly is the ultimate 1930’s gal
In almost the exact same dress she’d wear seven years later for
She’s the perfect 1930’s “dame,” except you can trust her and instead of shooting you in the back multiple times after screwing you out of money, she’d be really really nice to you and would appreciate a good snuggle.
Villains are a tough thing to do properly: they’ve got to be scary without seeming over-the-top, intelligent without seeming like a Bond villain, and charming without seeming forced. Timothy Dalton’s performance as Neville Sinclair makes it look easy, though: he hits all the right notes.
Complain about his tenure as Bond all you want, Timothy Dalton is a badass. Sinclair is basically Errol Flynn, if Errol Flynn was secretly a Nazi conspirator.
Not to mention that the movie-within-a-movie Neville appears in is outright hilarious in its familiarity: the scene is ripped almost directly from The Sea Hawk, and the fake dialogue (“It’d be a shame to tarnish my reputation on a villain such as you,” “Good heavens! It’s Sir Reginald”) is corny and awesome at the same time. If you’ve gotta get kidnapped and almost-raped by a villain, make sure said villain is played by Timothy Dalton. It’ll make the almost-rape that much more tolerable.
Special effects, circa 1991
Not to be the guy who complains that things were done better when he was younger, but CGI will never hold a candle to the 90’s blue screen effects in The Rocketeer. Had the film been made today, every single time the Rocketeer took flight, he’d be replaced with a CG character that neither looks nor behaves like a real person.
In the early 90’s, however, the studios still relied on blue screen and live actors to accomplish most of the big special effects. And (at least in the case of The Rocketeer), they really work: Cliff still looks like a real person as he soars through the sky, the blimp they escape from looks like it’s really exploding behind them, and a good portion of the rocketeering scenes are done practically, using wirework and practical pyrotechnics.
For a 1991 flick aimed at youngsters, The Rocketeer sprinkled on the 1930’s references quite liberally. Not only are Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn, and James Cagney referenced, but Cliff uses a model of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose to escape capture at one point (“That son of a bitch will fly,” Hughes incredulously exclaims), and a crashing Nazi blimp destroys the “land” in the “Hollywoodland” sign.
“Oh my God. Neville Sinclair’s a…”
“A what? Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? All of the above.”
“Drop the roscoe!”
“You know my rules: no gentlemen allowed inside after 6pm.”
“But I’m not a gentleman.”
“You’re telling me.
“It wasn’t lies, Jenny. It was acting.”
Even ignoring the design of the rocket itself (that thing is sleek), the jetpack is something we’ve been promised for the last sixty years, give or take a decade. Seriously, how friggin’ hard could it be to develop? Is anyone even trying? The other day, I read that Japanese scientists are trying to find a way of developing the perfect cybernetic baby chick. As in, a little yellow bird that acts realistic but doesn’t walk, poop, or think intelligently.
What is wrong with these scientists? Why can’t they get their goddamn priorities straight? Forget the AI bullshit for a little while and focus on getting us jetpacks, flying cars, and laser guns. Everything else can take a backseat. I’m talking to you too, cancer researchers.
Seriously, how cool is this thing? The moment I realized this helmet had an absolute hold on me was when I visited Amazon.com looking for the DVD, found a gold replica of this helmet retailing for $400, and spent literally the next twenty minutes contemplating whether or not I should buy it. It has no practical purpose, it’s far too expensive, and I’m a college student.
But godDAMN is it pretty. It really shouldn’t be – it looks like a mix between a grasshopper, a monorail car, and a penis – but it’s the most perfectly future-retro costume piece ever designed. It’s curvy and aerodynamic and cool, and, like the rocket, every kid wanted one after seeing this flick. Yeah, Peevy tells Cliff it makes him look like a hood ornament, but what the fuck does Peevy know?
I wouldn’t dare call Robocop and The Rocketeer similar films, but they nonetheless share one very specific, very weird story aspect. Both films are science fiction, but still stay firmly grounded in reality. Both films include hot chicks in supporting roles, both films include badasses wearing metal masks, and – most importantly – both films have at least one thing in them that totally doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. With Robocop, it was the haphazardly-placed vat of toxic waste that turns a bad guy into a walking mutant within five seconds of exposure.
In The Rocketeer, it’s Lothar. Lothar is Neville Sinclair’s laconic henchman who stands at least seven feet tall, has the strength of an ox, and is more or less indestructible in physical combat. Oh, and he also looks like a rejected Dick Tracy villain.
The Rocketeer may involve Nazi actors and rocket jetpacks, but otherwise it’s still a fairly naturalistic movie: people act the way people are supposed to act, and nobody really has any superpowers. Except Lothar, who is roughly the size and shape of Andre the Giant, and can break people in half with his bare hands.
Oh, and did I mention that at one point, when some G-Men begin to fire at him, he goes totally John Woo on their asses?
That’s right – Lothar whips out the dualie colts and begins to go to town. I know The Rocketeer is based on a comic book, but Lothar is still really out of place. But entertainingly so.
It’s pretty damn violent for a kid’s movie
In case my slapdash cropping job doesn’t make it obvious, the guy in the above screen capture has been broken in half. That foot next to his face is his own – Lothar literally broke him in two and left him in his office to die.
And this is in a PG movie, for goodness sake. While Raiders of the Lost Ark was PG and it included dozens of kills and exploding Nazis, PG was much more inclusive in the 80’s: anything that wasn’t R or X was basically PG. In 1991, however, "parental guidance suggested" had come to mean essentially what it means now: a family friendly romp that may include some suspense or excitement, but nothing that would warrant covering your child’s ears or eyes over.
Imagine the surprise audiences must have felt when not one, but two secondary characters are crushed at the hands of Lothar, at least one character is stabbed, three explode, and about a half-dozen others are cut down by machine gun fire. Coolest. Modern. PG flick. Ever.
Jan from The Office
Yep – she’s the lounge singer at the
The theme song
In the same way that Robocop’s theme song makes the viewer want to stand up and punch criminals in the face, The Rocketeer’s makes the viewer want to stand up, forget that the world is actually a very dark and disappointing place, and soar into the heavens.
James Horner makes music like this for a living, but the theme song in The Rocketeer is probably one of the best pieces of music he’s ever written: as I rewatched the film as research for this article, my sister entered the room and heard the theme playing. “That sounds like inspirational sports movie music,” she said. I was inclined to agree with her: the theme song is triumphant, hopeful, and heroic – everything the Rocketeer’s theme song should be.
Of course, after that I was forced to knee my sister in the babymaker a few times for talking out of turn. She is not to speak until spoken to, and one of these days she will realize that.
Rocketeer vs stained glass
As most great moments in The Rocketeer begin, Cliff Secord is cornered. This particular corner occurs in the
Fly upwards and break through the stained glass ceiling above him, of course.
Every movie needs a moment where the hero breaks through something while superheroic music plays, and this is that moment in The Rocketeer: the theme music gets triumphant and soaring as Cliff ignites his jetpack and leaves the bad guys in his rocketeering wake.
The Nazi propaganda film
The Nazi propaganda film that Howard Hughes shows Cliff is so damn cool, it’d almost be worth a Nazi invasion of the
The propaganda cartoon is awesomely animated, and almost makes you wish for more Rocketeer comics or an animated series. Alas, the comics are all but impossible to find and an animated show was never even momentarily considered. At least we have this two-minute slice of animated badassity, though.
The topics on the Rocketeer IMDB board
Patsy, the unluckiest girl in the world
Poor Patsy. She’s a tertiary character (at best), she only has about three lines, and everytime she shows up something bad happens to her. The first time we see her is at the airfield diner: the wheel has broken off her toy biplane and she needs it fixed. Her uncle’s attempt to do so results in the wheel accidentally getting chucked into Jenny’s soup, splashing broth all over her and doubtlessly making little Patsy feel guilty as all hell.
The second time we see her, Cliff has just gotten off the phone with the bad guys, who are now holding Jenny hostage. When Patsy innocently asks Cliff what the matter is, he flips the fuck out and yells, “QUIET, PATSY! I’m trying to THINK!”
Patsy just sort of stares at him blankly for a few seconds until Cliff apologizes profusely, but the damage has already been done. As if Patsy didn’t feel guilty enough for indirectly splashing Jenny with chicken soup, she now feels that she’s angered the one guy who could have saved Jenny.
Plus, she’s butt-ugly. Nothing ever goes right for Patsy.
Locke as Howard Hughes
Before Marty Scorcese and Leo DiCaprio unveiled the true nature of one of the most misunderstood geniuses of the early 1900’s, Terry O’Quinn (who will only be referred to as “Locke” from this point on) was the TV generation’s only real glimpse into the man, the myth, and the legend of Howard Hughes.
Locke plays him as a wise, almost Yoda-esque badass: he’s got all the answers and all the technology, but he answers to no one and refuses to compromise. He’s totally peripheral to the story and isn’t a particularly necessary character, but it’s still really cool to see a real-life personality take such a prominent role in the film. Were it not for The Aviator, we could think the name “Howard Hughes” and immediately remember a pencil mustache and a knowing grin, instead of the frequently repeated phrase, “Show me all the blueprints.”
Show me all the blueprints.
Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints.
Gangsters and G-Men vs The Nazis
Near the end of the film, Cliff is backed into a corner. Eddie Valentine’s thugs, under the employ of Neville Sinclair, have kidnapped Jenny and are holding her ransom in exchange for the rocket pack.
Until, of course, Cliff tells Eddie Valentine who Neville Sinclair really is. Once Cliff and Jenny let the cat out of the bag, Valentine turns on Sinclair and utters the single coolest line in the entire film:
“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. And I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”
At that point, Neville yells “schnell” or “kommen zie here” or something in Nazispeak, and a bunch of armed Nazi soldiers jump out of the nearby bushes and force the gangsters to drop their guns.
For the moment, try to ignore the fact that there is literally no logical explanation for why the Nazis could possibly be there (and if they’d been in the US all along, why did Neville even bother hiring Valentine’s men in the first place?), and simply take solace in the fact that a few seconds later, a cadre of FBI agents storm the airport and begin blasting the shit out of the Nazis. The gangsters pick up their guns and fight back the fascist horde right alongside the cops: Eddie Valentine and one of the FBI agents even exchange a quick, knowing glance at one another in the heat of battle. If there’s one thing that can get Americans to put aside their differences and unite toward a common goal, it’s hatred of Nazis.
The Rocketeer himself
If you take Cliff Secord and you remove the rocket, the helmet, and the Jennifer Connelly, what do you have?
Nothing. And that’s what makes the character great.
Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer has no special powers, isn’t a particularly good fighter, and isn’t even that intelligent. The only thing that makes him special as a human being is that rocket pack. And, in a way, that’s reassuring. As a kid watching this flick in the early 90’s, it was extremely easy to picture yourself as the Rocketeer: if only I could get one of those rockets for myself, I’d be drop-kicking Nazis until the cows came home. Even regular comic book heroes like Batman only got their position in life by being superintelligent, superrich, or supertrained: The Rocketeer is a hero that any schmoe, no matter how stupid or lazy or weak, could become. Assuming you can find a jetpack, that is.
Ze Angriest Nazi
This whiny blonde Nazi shows up only near the end of the film, and only has one line in English – but he steals the show. When Sinclair’s Big Nazi Blimp of Doom arrives, Ze Angriest Nazi is already inside of it. Literally the moment Sinclair steps on board, ZAN is irritated with him.
He shouts and spits German at Sinclair with a truly remarkable amount of rage that never ceases. Even when Sinclair does something good, Ze Angriest Nazi manages to find fault with it: once Lothar goes on top of the blimp and proceeds to smack the shit out of Cliff, ZAN still bitches to Neville in krautspeak. Ze Angriest Nazi eventually gets so annoying that Neville shoots him in the chest and throws him out of the blimp. Assumedly, Neville does this because the pilot tells him that the blimp is too heavy, but I’m almost a hundred percent sure that Neville was just sick of his bullshit.
The Rocketeer was originally conceived as (at the very least) a trilogy. Disney wanted to start an entire franchise around The Rocketeer, one exec going so far as to dub it Disney’s own Indiana Jones. As these things turn out, however, The Rocketeer underperformed at the box office and Disney dropped the franchise quicker than third period French class.
Which makes the ending to The Rocketeer all the more tragic. Not only does Cliff get the girl, but Howard Hughes gives him a new plane, and Jenny shows Peevy the lost plans for the rocket pack. Cliff and Jenny begin to suck face as Peevy discusses possible improvements to the jetpack design, and the camera slowly backs away as we fade to black.
In other words, the perfect setup for a sequel that would never come.
Still, though, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that such a great film was never sequalized: The Rocketeer will never be tarnished by disappointing sequels (Pirates of the Caribbean), or a change in lead actors (Robocop): instead, we are left with one fantastic, standalone film that allows the audience to simply imagine what the future adventures of the Rocketeer would have been.
Then again, Indiana Jones got two sequels and both of them kicked total ass, so it’s still really hard to not feel gypped.
Show me all the blueprints.