Gangsters, Tommy Guns, Hollywood movie star villains, feds, a stolen Gizmo, Nazi zeppelins, and a man who flies!
To my 1991 pre-teen self, Hollywood had no better pitch than 'The Rocketeer.' To be fair, I love airplanes and adventure so much that if Hollywood came knocking today with the same pitch, I'd giddily plunk down my money to see it in 3D. The sad part, of course, is that on a $40M budget, the film only grossed $46M in 1991, so it never became the franchise Disney (and many young boys my age) originally hoped it would.
Much like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' a decade before, 'The Rocketeer' is a throw back to 1930s serial adventure films and nickel comic books. It's the type of world where you can punch a G-Man "in the kisser and they let you waltz" because they understood why you were upset. More specifically, it's about a stolen Howard Hughes designed jetpack -- the X3 -- that falls into the hands of a down on his luck pilot, Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), and his mechanic (Alan Arkin). What Cliff doesn't know is the gangster who originally took the X3 will stop at nothing to get it back for a villainous Errol Flynn type movie star who is also a Nazi spy. Poor Cliff, who only wants the X3 long enough to fix his plane, must then dodge the mobsters, the FBI, and the Nazis while trying to rescue his actress girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), who has gotten wrapped up in the whole thing. In a way, it's 'Iron Man' meets 'Captain America' (another fine film directed by Joe Johnston).
Having not seen 'The Rocketeer' in over a decade (maybe even 15 years), I had forgotten the nuts and bolts of the plot. Like how Cliff and his girlfriend are two young people who dream big, but don’t quite respect the other's ambitions. Or why Cliff dared to put the dangerous jetpack on in the first place. The whole movie is a little silly and a little over the top, but then again, B-movies are supposed to be. 'The Rocketeer' opens with James Horner's classically themed Old Hollywood film score and literally takes off from there with a flight over rural California, never slowing down until the end credits roll.
Along with the score, the film's production design by Jim Bissell and cinematography by Hiro Narita plant you in the period and help establish the period nostalgia along with the exciting, adventurous tone. George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic handled pre-digital Visual Effects, which only adds to the feeling of watching an old-style Hollywood action adventure. Today, while some shots stick out because of thick matte lines, most effects are slightly more convincing and weighted than modern CGI, which can look too cartoony. The climax, at times, is a real showstopper.
What really grounds the film is the outstanding cast. Billy Campbell was given his chance to be a star, and while he's no Indiana Jones, he carries the movie well enough. Jennifer Connelly does a nice job elevating the damsel in distress. And I forgot that Terry O'Quinn of 'Lost' played Howard Hughes. But Timothy Dalton is my favorite as the scene-chewing, mustache twirling movie star villain. Director Joe Johnston does excellent job corralling all of the performances, balancing tones, keeping the pace moving forward, and orchestrating the whole circus. We should also point out the action scenes, while not quiet Spielbergian, are heads and tails above the over-kinetic chaos cinema of most newer blockbusters.
If one were to address any problems with the film, there are a few cartoony moments with a large-chinned assassin who likes to fold people in half. That folding-habit combined with the actor's makeup is a bit too much like deleted scenes from 'Dick Tracy' (where the exaggerated facial features worked much better). There's also a few odd moments involving the Nazi plot that didn't quite work in transitioning us from the second act into the third. And perhaps Jennifer Connelly's character could have been a little more substantial (but I hear a bunch of the love story / character stuff was left on the editing room floor).
Overall, though, it was fun returning to 'The Rocketeer'. It's a classy B-movie that delivers thrills, airborne adventure, and excitement. While it's not a home run, it's a solid triple of a movie. It's a shame this didn't do better at the box office, but at least we have this Blu-ray.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Home Entertainment brings 'The Rocketeer' to Blu-ray as a 20th Anniversary Edition that includes one BD50 (Regions A, B, and C) housed in a standard Blu-ray case. This Digitally Restored edition features no forced trailers (thanks, Disney!).
Sporting an AVC MPEG-4 encode (aspect ratio: 2.35:1), 'The Rocketeer' looks pretty great on Blu-ray. For a 20-year-old film, there's a lot to appreciate here. Detail and dimensionality can be exquisite at times, especially in close ups, though most of the daylight, exterior scenes look terrific. The entire film is a little on the warm side, but the skin tones are even and nicely done. Black levels are solid, without a hint of noise or crushing from what I can tell. Film grain remains intact, and much to my surprise, there are only a handful of teeny, tiny blink-and-you-missed them blemishes in the form of a dirt spec here or there. Otherwise, Disney's digital restoration (as advertised on the front sticker) features no scratches, edge enhancement or digital noise reduction. The encode is solid as well, with not traces of banding. Contrast is accurate, with a full range of information in light to dark areas of the screen.
On the flip side, inherent softness shows up from time to time, which seems to be a filmstock issue rather than a production one. You can tell the difference because many of Connelly's close ups are intentionally soft in that glossy '40s movie way, yet they still look crisp in places. Other shots, not so much. Also, there is some loss of resolution in the darker night and/or interior scenes. As an example, play close attention as the Feds go to "Bigelow's" ransacked office. The shots are definitely soft, but on the positive side, you can see the set and props in all the half-shadows.
Overall, other than some softness and one or two specs of dirt, 'The Rocketeer' looks pretty damn great. Certainly the best it ever has on home video.
Much like the video presentation, this 5.1 English DTS-HD MA soundtrack won't be competing with any modern era action adventure films, but this is a pretty great track for its age. The highlight is James Horner's wonderful score. It fills the entire soundstage. Given the era of the original production, it's not a surprise to learn that this track, outside of the score elements, is generally front heavy. The front channel stereo panning is accurate and gives a nice sense of dimension. And the dialog is always crisp and clear.
In terms of a surround experience, the track has some moments -- sound effects like gunshots and airplanes wiz around from time to time, mostly front to back on one side or another -- but overall it's not the most precise or discrete on the block. All of which can be forgiven. The only real disappointment is underwhelming LFE. I know some will moan about not every track needing to shake walls. But I simply wonder how the film's soaring score gets a nice dynamic range, yet there is no roar to support the on-screen spectacle of the film's many explosions. The lower tones and mid range sound a little hollow or flat, which is most likely a limitation of the source material.
Nitpicking aside, this is a generally successful track that should make fans of Horner's work, and the film itself, quite happy. Too bad it missed the surround sound era (ushered in by 'Jurassic Park') by a few short years; I would love to see what modern sound designers could do with this film today.
The only other soundtrack available is a 2.0 French Dolby Digital track.
Though I can't say it's a surprise given the film's box office performance, there is only one special feature on this disc: the film's original theatrical trailer. Sadly, the widescreen "HD" trailer appears to be stretch-o-vision and the source material is pretty damaged. I supposed it's good to see in the sense that the Blu-ray could actually look this had the film not been restored.
I hadn't seen 'The Rocketeer' in ages, but reviewing it was like being 11 all over again. It doesn't quite live up to the 'Indiana Jones' franchise in terms of wit or fluidly staged set pieces, but it’s a rip-roaring adventure film with a great cast. As a Blu-ray, though not perfect, it looks and sounds better than it ever has in the home. The only downside, for collectors, is the lack of special features. Fans, pick this up at a comfortable price point. If you've never seen 'The Rocketeer' before, it's not going to change your life, but if you do buy or rent, you're in for a treat of old-style filmmaking and classic ILM special effects. Recommended (for fun period adventure and as a decent catalog restoration).