There's a point in Joe Johnston's 1991 superhero franchise bid The Rocketeer when heroine Jennifer Connelly first hears of the hero and repsonds, "The Rocka-hoo?" That's just about the reaction you'd get from any given Hollywood executive and most kids today. It's a shame that the film didn't take flight at the box office, because it's always been something of a charmer in its gee-whiz, irony-light resuscitation of the movie serials of the '30s. Then again, perhaps Hollywood didn't quite forget, since Johnston got a second chance at a traditional period superhero story with the 2011 picture Captain America: The First Avenger. A slicker, 3D, CGI-enhanced movie born of Marvel Studios' long-game Avengers push, Captain America financially succeeded where The Rocketeer failed, but Johnston's adaptation of Dave Stevens' Rocketeer comics remains an awfully likeable ride.
The Rocketeer is Cliff Secord (square-jawed, floppy-haired Bill Campbell, evincing a certain comic flair), a barnstorming stunt pilot who happens onto a stolen top-secret government apparatus: a rocket-fueled jetpack. The jetpack's allure trumps the obvious danger and trouble the rocket promises, and soon Cliff—abetted by ace mechanic A. "Peevy" Peabody (Alan Arkin)—takes to the air to affect rescues and thwart an unfolding Nazi plot that has ensnared Cliff's aspiring-actress girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). Like so many 1930s films, The Rocketeer practically bursts with snappy characters, including a slimy matinee idol played by Timothy Dalton (and superficially modelled on Errol Flynn), a surprisingly ethical mobster named Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), and a hulking thug named Lothar (Tiny Ron, sporting Rick Baker makeup patterned after '30s B-movie actor Rondo Hatton). Johnston employs plenty more great character actors, including Terry O’Quinn (Lost) as Howard Hughes, Melora Hardin (The Office's Jan) as a nightclub singer who performs “Begin the Beguine” and “When Your Lover Has Gone,” Jon Polito (Barton Fink), Margo Martindale (Justified), Eddie Jones (Seabiscuit), William Sanderson (Deadwood), and Ed Lauter (True Romance) and James Handy (Arachnophobia) as an amusing pair of tough-talking FBI agents.
The first thing many will notice on watching The Rocketeer is the familiarity of James Horner's soaring score, which has been regularly sampled by those who cut trailers and edit the Olympic Games. But the film has plenty of fanciful elements in its favor: crack stunt work and creditable flying sequences and 1938 Los Angeles period stylings that are a hoot and a half (the familiar-looking designs for the Bull Dog Café and the Brown Derby, a plane called the Gee Bee and the requisite Beeman's gum to go with it) and cool movie references (from a nicely executed homage to The Adventures of Robin Hood to “cameos” by contemporaneous movie stars). The script may be a bit loose—the Rocketeer doesn't fly into action until forty minutes into the picture—but it's witty, as evidenced by the finale set at the Griffith Observatory. Above all, it's a family-friendly (if boy-centric) adventure, with a nasty villain to hiss, a beautiful girl to moon over, and a handsome hero to cheer.
Thanks, no doubt to the recent release of Joe Johnston's Captain America, we at last get an upgrade to Johnston's fondly remembered superhero flick The Rocketeer. Despite being billed as the "20th Anniversary Edition," the sole bonus feature here is the “Original Theatrical Trailer” (2:19, SD). While that's a definite disappointment (not even the EPK, Disney?), Disney definitely rights the wrong of its shoddy DVD release of the film with this hi-def upgrade. Besides the basics (like a transfer at the proper aspect ratio, compatible with HDTVs), this transfer makes noticeable strides in all areas of sight and sound. The picture shows finer resolution, bolder color, and sharpened detail over its DVD counterpart, and though the image retains a certain filmic softness that's part and parcel of the source material, that's to be expected (and demanded), rather than an artificially sharpened look. There's a bit of ringing and shadow detail isn't always what it could be, but The Rocketeer basically looks tip-top. The film's age places limits on its lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix, but it's the definitive sound presentation of this film, with a bit of surround action and a full-bodied treatment of the music.
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