In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Exactly good enough to be enjoyed today as a nostalgic guilty pleasure.”
“How did it feel, strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of hell?”
I was 10 or 11 when The Rocketeer came out. That should have been the perfect age to see this movie. And I’m pretty sure I wanted to. I can’t imagine my 10 or 11 year old mind wasn’t blown by the cool look of the character, the cool idea of the rocket pack and the thought of the cool, then-cutting edge effects. But for whatever reason, I never got to see it. In the years since, its reputation has gone from box office bomb, to nostalgic guilty pleasure, to unfairly overlooked classic. So, with all of that hindsight, and as a man in his 30s, I had no idea how would feel when I finally saw The Rocketeer.
It’s 1930s Hollywood, and daredevil pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell) straps himself into the cockpit of a racing plane built by his friend and mentor, Peevy (Alan Arkin). The initial test flight goes well, until Cliff inadvertently flies over a police chase in progress. When the gangsters being chased fire a few pot shots at Cliff, he loses control and crash lands. At the same time, the gangsters take refuge in a hangar on Cliff’s airfield, hiding whatever booty they were trying to escape with.Later, Cliff and Peevy find that booty, a jet pack that can make a man fly. After a few small tests, Cliff is thrown in the deep end one day when a fellow pilot is about to crash. Throwing on the jetpack, complete with a snazzy new helmet built by Peevy, Cliff saves the day and makes the front page of the local newspaper. While Cliff’s identity might have been hidden by the helmet, the newspaper alerts the FBI, the gangsters and the jetpack’s inventor (Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes) to the invention’s general whereabouts. Now everyone is trying to track it down. All the while, Cliff’s aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is about to get her big break, acting alongside the Douglas Fairbanks-esque Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). But even he has interest in the jetpack, and affiliations with, wait for it, the Nazis.
The classic 30s era, the serial like approach to set pieces, even then inclusion of the Nazis, it’s clear that The Rocketeer was going for a similar feel as the Indiana Jones movies. The only problem is, the Indiana Jones movies had Steven Spielberg and George Lucas behind them. Say what you will about Spielberg and Lucas in the years since, but in the 80s, nobody understood the whizz-bang awesomeness of classic Hollywood serials and adventure stories better than them. And The Rocketeer just never quite gets to that level. It looks great, but it also looks like a 90s movie trying to imitate the 30s. Somehow, the Indiana Jones movies didn’t just appropriate the era, they embodied it.
The Rocketeer is too good to have been the box office bomb it was on release. The Rocketeer is nowhere near good enough to be seen as an unfairly overlooked classic today. The Rocketeer is exactly good enough to be enjoyed today as a nostalgic guilty pleasure. Nothing more, nothing less. Because sometimes, a nostalgic guilty pleasure is the perfect movie for certain situations.