The Rocketeer - Timothy Dalton's Finest Hour?

Although he was apparently first considered for the role of James Bond way back in 1969 for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Timothy Dalton only played 007 twice after being cast in 1986 in the wake of the Brosnan/Remington Steele episode. It seems somewhat unfair when one thinks that Daniel Craig will surpass Dalton's tenure with the next Bond film and Dalton was, we shouldn't forget, probably the first actor to really take the role seriously, winning plaudits for bringing the series back down to earth in The Living Daylights. Things turned sour for Dalton when his second film, Licence To Kill, sank in the blockbuster summer of 1989 and was hampered by a lacklustre marketing campaign. Although the film tends to divide fans a little it was certainly a far, far better Bond picture than the likes of Die Another Day or the atrocious Quantum of Solace. Dalton, at least, never had a real disaster on his watch. In the midst of this charmless half-baked Bond reboot, I find my appreciation for Timothy Dalton's contribution and two entries increasing year by year. It's been nice to see him emerge in recent times as a vaguely cultish figure and you suddenly remember some of the pictures he's done away from Bond like the gloriously camp Flash Gordon, The Lion in Winter, Agatha, Hawks, Hot Fuzz, and his enjoyable turn as the flamboyant Neville Sinclair in The Rocketeer.

The Rocketeer is an underrated 1991 action adventure film directed by Joe Johnston and based on characters created by writer/artist Dave Stevens. The film is a period romp set in 1938 and revolves around the adventures of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), a young daredevil stunt pilot who ends up in possession of a futuristic jet pack that enables him to fly and become a superhero of sorts. This extraordinary jet pack was designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn) but stolen by mobsters working for gang boss Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino). When cornered by FBI agents in an aircraft hanger, the mobster thieves hide the rocket in an old biplane and give the impression they have destroyed it. Hughes decides to destroy all blueprints for the device and cut his losses but Cliff and friend/mechanic/inventor Peevy Peabody (Alan Arkin) find the jet pack in the old plane and, despite Peabody's initial reluctance, begin to experiment with it to see how it works. When Cliff uses the jet pack to rescue elderly mechanic Malcom (Eddie Jones) after his aircraft malfunctions in flight he becomes a media sensation and is dubbed The Rocketeer. Trouble is not far away though because Secord has now attracted the attention of the FBI, Howard Hughes and the Nazi agents who were behind the scheme to steal the jet pack in the first place.  

A superior intended summer blockbuster that nonetheless bombed upon release up against the likes of Terminator 2 and Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, The Rocketeer is an affectionate and lavish homage to 1930s Republic B-serials with gangsters, G-Men, flying sequences, Nazis, zeppelins, secret invasion plans, Hollywood stars and a good dose of old-fashioned charm. This is a film that deserved a wider audience with its interesting cast, wonderful design and deliberately unhurried pace which enables us to get to know and care about the characters. The pleasant atmosphere of The Rocketeer is indicated in the opening moments which feature some lovely aerial sequences and stirring music from James Horner from a score which plunders his back catalogue somewhat over the course of the picture but works well enough. The close relationship between Cliff and Peevy is also nicely conveyed with some good moments for Campbell and Alan Arkin, who is well cast as the eccentric boffin Peevy. Cliff wants to use the rocket for good deeds but Peevy is not convinced. "Clifford, when you borrow something, you don't tell nobody, they call that stealing you know." The jet pack shenanigans and special effects have held up reasonably well over the years but wisely aren't allowed to saturate the film and the sequences where Cliff seeks to master flying the jet pack - rather unsuccessfully at first - bring some nice moments of levity into proceedings. "How do I look?" asks Cliff in his Rocketeer clobber and protective helmet for the first time. "Like a hood ornament," replies Peevy. 

The film is notable for an early screen appearance by Jennifer Connelly as Cliff's aspiring actress girlfriend Jenny Blake. Connelly's character is largely ornamental but has quite a nice arc in the film and lends some real 30s starlet glamour to the picture in period costume and expensive looking dresses when being courted by Timothy Dalton's calculating Neville Sinclair - a hammy film star who is based on Errol Flynn and actually working for the Nazis. The scenes on the set of Sinclair's latest picture are good fun as Dalton, with matinee idol mustache, camps it up with some relish in a piece of nonsense called The Laughing Bandit. The rose tinted and glossy depiction of Hollywood is something of an in-joke here but undoubtedly makes the film more stylish and humorous. Then current James Bond star Dalton - still officially 007 when he made The Rocketeer but he would not ultimately return for a third film because of studio legal wrangles - displays great panache as Sinclair and easily steals the picture with a charismatic and surprisingly funny performance. 

There is perhaps some real irony here because panache and humour were the the two principle qualities that critics of Timothy's Bond felt he conspicuously lacked playing 007 in 1989's Licence To Kill only a few years before The Rocketeer, his somewhat theatrical performance coming across as a trifle too grim and serious for some tastes. The film serves as solid evidence that Dalton had the ability to lighten up and have some fun and it's a shame in hindsight that he didn't get one more stab at Bond. His third picture was rumoured to have been planned as a more fantastical and high-tech caper than Licence To Kill and might just have cemented him in the role. Paul Sorvino is also well cast in The Rocketeer as mob boss Eddie Valentine and plays him not a million miles away from his mafia character in Goodfellas. Sorvino has a good line when his loyalties and patriotism are questioned. Terry O'Quinn, now better known as Mr Locke from Lost, is also fine as Howard Hughes although he doesn't have a huge role in the film. 

Although The Rocketeer is inevitably derivative at times, the period adventure romp having been mined many times over the years, it does have some nice touches and little moments that lift it above the usual family friendly summer fare. Clark Gable and WC Fields make cameo appearances and there is a wonderful re-creation of a Nazi propaganda cartoon with countless Nazi rocket-troopers invading the United States. The dirigible action climax (reminiscent of A View to a Kill) is good fun and the scenes involving the Rocketeer in action have a enjoyable comic book come to life quality that is echoed throughout the rest of the film with the young underdog hero, glamorous 30s girlfriend and suave villain. Lothar (Tiny Ron), a rubber faced goon of a henchman who could be straight out of Dick Tracy or James Bond and has a Roger Moore/Richard Kiel style encounter with Cliff, is another nice addition to the film, slotting into the pleasantly nostalgic spirit. "Yeah," says Dalton's Sinclair when Valentine is surprised to be told they are after a rocket pack. "Like in the comic books." Interestingly, the designer of the jet pack in the comic (created in 1981) that the film was based on was Doc Savage but the studio had to use Howard Hughes instead for legal reasons. One slightly sad thing about The Rocketeer is how the ending so obviously sets up a sequel that was duly scuppered by mediocre box-office returns. 

Despite the fact that The Rocketeer seemed to tick all the appropriate boxes to be a box-office smash - including decent reviews - and is probably on a par with the Indiana Jones sequels, the blame for its puzzling lack of success tends to be placed on the shoulders of its unknown lead actor Bill Campbell, who obviously didn't become much of a star in subsequent years. Some simply felt The Rocketeer needed more of an established name in the central role, a move that might have put more bums on cinema seats at the time. Campbell was best known for a bit part in Dynasty or something but his All-American good looks were deemed an attractive fit for the young, idealistic Cliff Secord, a plucky old-fashioned hero who finds an incredible piece of technology and tries to use it for good - in stark contrast to the plans of some of those on his trail. Although a little wooden at times, Campbell is always likeable and brings a pleasant, slightly goofy, wide-eyed wonder to the part of Cliff. His performance is certainly adequate and he's reasonably dashing in the action scenes although The Rocketeer might have been an even more interesting film - with a bigger and more enduring profile - if a young Edward Scissorhands era Johnny Depp had played Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer, a casting idea the studio apparently strongly considered at the time.  

The Rocketeer is not a perfect film but it is a very likeable and entertaining one made with a great deal of care. An underrated and slightly forgotten would be summer blockbuster that deserved to be seen by more people. It's also a must for James Bond fans for a terrific performance by Timothy Dalton who, in contrast to his last performance as James Bond, seems to be having an awful lot of fun as an actor.

Long may he continue to do so.

- Jake


c 2009 Alternative 007