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.