The Rocketeer review

Banana Rating: 4 out of 5

There’s some­thing appeal­ing about jet packs. Whilst the tech­no­logy doesn’t quite seem to have arrived at the sci­ence fic­tion uto­pia of people jet­ting through the air to their work­place, or cops swoop­ing down from the skies to sur­prise a crim­inal scum­bag as he runs off down the street with a stolen hand­bag, jet packs still fire the ima­gin­a­tion. They put us into the boots of fant­ast­ical god-like her­oes such as Super­man. Why should he have all the fun?

With Cap­tain Amer­ica out this week­end (in the UK), now’s a good time to revisit Joe Johnston’s first attempt at a slice of World War 2 action adven­ture. Strictly speak­ing, it’s set before WW2 begins, in the year 1938. But Ger­many and the Nazi party looms large in the background.

Billy Camp­bell is the oddly named Cliff Secord, a pilot who makes his liv­ing by per­form­ing aero­plane stunts at air­shows. After some gang­sters shoot up his plane, and he barely escapes with his life, he later dis­cov­ers they’ve hid­den an exper­i­mental rocket pack in the air­field where he works.

A rocket pack inven­ted by none other than Howard Hughes (played by none other than John Locke from Lost!), and stolen on the orders of Neville Sin­clair, an Errol Flynn style Hol­ly­wood actor played with scene steal­ing flair by Timothy Dalton.

Birth of a hero

For Secord, the lure of strap­ping the rocket pack to his back and tak­ing to the skies proves too hard to res­ist. Not least the idea that it could make him and his bud­dies a lot of money for their debt rid­den airfield.

That’s the thing about the Rock­et­eer. He doesn’t start out as a hero. He’s essen­tially an ordin­ary Joe, with a knack for fly­ing, who just wants enough money to get by, and spend time with his girl­friend, the ever lovely Jen­nifer Con­nelly.

But when Secord decides on the spur of the moment to use the rocket pack to res­cue someone in dire peril, kind of an old fash­ioned little cheer went up inside me. He races across the air­field to retrieve his bor­rowed tech. It’s the birth of a hero. And not one born of van­ity. Some­body has to do some­thing quickly. He has the tools to do it. And so he does it.

The fly­ing scenes that fol­low don’t dis­ap­point. They have real oomph. I could almost smell the rocket fuel as Secord blasts through the sky. The Rock­et­eer roars past the screen like, well, a rocket. There’s some nice look­ing wide shots too, where we see the twin rock­ets burn­ing bright in the dis­tance, before Secord is pro­pelled into a screen jud­der­ing close up.

Rocket pack utopia

Des­pite being a pretty good pilot, he’s never in full con­trol of his new-found tech­no­logy. He’s learn­ing all the time, the rocket pack cut­ting out at cru­cial moments. Land­ings too, are fraught with danger, and never less than bumpy.

All of this goes some way to explain­ing why The Rock­et­eer was ori­gin­ally envi­sioned as a tri­logy. If it hadn’t been a huge flop, I get the feel­ing that the later films would have seen a more con­fid­ent Rock­et­eer, plunged head­long into World War 2 and all man­ner of excit­ing adven­tures. Indeed, a Nazi pro­pa­ganda film part­way through hints at some­thing darker, and more epic to come.

And as for the rocket pack uto­pia? Well, give me a rocket pack, and I would prob­ably just use it to fly low down inner city streets, knock­ing the hats off traffic war­dens. Pretty heroic, in my book.