Movie Classics – The Rocketeer (1991)

Disney's homage to the pulp adventures of the 1930s failed to launch on release – but as a cult classic it's soared

"How do I look?"

"Like a hood ornament."

When racing pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) stumbles upon an experimental rocket pack, he takes to the skies as 1930s crime-fighting hero The Rocketeer. But his exploits attract the attention of others who are after the rocket pack – the gangsters who stole it, Nazi agents who want to use it to create an army of rocket-men, and the device's inventor, Howard Hughes himself (played by Lost's Terry O'Quinn).

Pulp fiction

The best superhero film you've never heard of, The Rocketeer was based on a retro-styled comic book by Dave Stevens. Like the comic book, the film's a joyous homage to the glory days of the pulp adventure, with square-jawed heroes, damsels in distress and a scheming villain.

The Rocketeer (1991)

The ridiculously-chiseled Billy Campbell is perfectly cast as Cliff Secord, playing an earnest All-American hero who's going steady with his best gal and subsists on a diet of cherry pie and coffee down the local diner. Like fellow pulp-homage hero Indiana Jones, Secord gets by more on luck than smarts – and he needs all the luck he can get.

Former James Bond Timothy Dalton is clearly having the time of his life chewing up the screen as villainous actor-turned-fifth-columnist Neville Sinclair. Modelled on Errol Flynn, he cuts a rakish dash as he woos Secord's girlfriend Jenny while plotting the downfall of the free world.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Played by a youthful Jennifer Connelly, Jenny's toned down a bit from her comic book alter-ego. In Sinclair's comics, Cliff's gal is Betty, a glamour girl based on infamous pin-up model Bettie Page – who spends much of the book shedding her clothes like they're going out of fashion.

Disney execs understandably balked at the idea of putting Betty in front of family audiences, so Connelly plays the altogether more wholesome Jenny – a chorus girl who catches Sinclair's eye.

More after the break...

Hooray for Hollywood

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With Jenny and Sinclair both working in the movies, director Joe Johnson seized the opportunity to pay homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, pastiching classic movie scenes from the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, setting the action in expansive Art Deco sets and even paying tribute to B-movie actor Rondo Hatton with the character of villainous henchman Lothar. 

Packed with action and adventure – it builds to a climax aboard a Nazi airship exploding above the Hollywood Hills, for heaven's sake – by rights The Rocketeer should've been a huge success, spawning an entire franchise of Indiana Jones-inspired adventures.

Block-busted

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Sadly, The Rocketeer had the bad luck to open opposite the likes of blockbusters Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and took a pounding at the box office. Still, in recent years this overlooked gem has built up a cult following – you can pick it up for a few quid online, so go treat yourself.

Rather irritatingly, those lucky Americans have recently been treated to a Blu-ray edition of the film, with The Rocketeer receiving a high-definition spit-and-polish. No sign of it making its way over this side of the pond, though – sort it out, Disney.

The Rocketeer wasn't Joe Johnson's last brush with WWII-era superheroes – he went on to direct Marvel Studios' Captain America: The First Avenger. He remains keen to return to the world of The Rocketeer for a sequel, too – to which we say: Bring it on!

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