20 years ago, The Walt Disney Studios was a very different place than it is today. Only 7 years into the Michael Eisner and Frank Wells era, Jeffrey Katzenberg was running the studio, and they were looking for hits. Animation was going well, but Katzenberg was looking for new films that would strike a similar chord with the public. To do so, they turned to The Rocketeer, a comic book written and drawn by Dave Stevens.
The film they produced is a strange combination of Stevens’ sensibilities and studio pressures. Despite the mish mash of a story that could be incredibly silly, The Rocketeer is realistic and fun. The Rocketeer is an attempt to create a pulp action film, similar to that of Indiana Jones, and it succeeds in that regard.
Bill Campbell portrays Cliff Secord, a man who finds a rocket pack that is sought by both gangsters and the FBI. His dogged resistance to giving back the jetpack ends up jeopardizing the lives of his friend, Peevy (Alan Alda) and his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). In the end, Secord becomes the Rocketeer to save Jenny, before hanging up his jetpack for good.
The best parts of the movie come when Cliff is off his game, trying to find a way to get along with Jenny or to experiment with the rocket pack. Cliff is not and was never meant to be a secure, confident hero. Campbell portrays this different type of hero well. That may seem odd to you today, but watch movies like Spider-Man or Iron Man and you’ll see the same formula repeated. The Rocketeer was a solid foundation for these future films.
The problem comes as the film lacks an emotional core. Although Cliff and Jenny are dating, the chemistry between Campbell and Connelly is not very believable. There are occasions when they manage to convince the viewer that they are an average couple, but that’s the worst part of it. Stevens portrayed the couple in the comic books as a fighting couple that didn’t always see eye to eye. In the film, we get doe-eyed heroine one minute and feisty fighter the next. That’s not Jennifer Connelly’s fault, it seems to be the meddling of the studio changing what was portrayed in the comic book to a more typical film relationship.
This movie should hit all of my favorite things and make itself into an instant classic. It has classic Hollywood, comic book action, Nazis, romance and even more. Unfortunately, the different pieces of the puzzle don’t always connect. The Rocketeer comes off as a good movie with the potential to be even better, and that sort of makes me sad. We know Disney won’t revisit the film to make more movies in this world, so it means that this is all we will get. That leaves a half done Rocketeer film that fails to live up to its immense potential.