The Rocketeer

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Review By Richard Kirkham

  [ This essay was originally Published on the deleted site “Fogs Movie Reviews” in the Fall of 2013]

The+RocketeerHollywood in the Golden Age, Nazi Commandos, Gangsters, Young Love, Air Speed Races, Howard Hughes, is there anything that is not found in this Walt Disney Picture from more than twenty years ago? I can’t think of anything they could have added to make this movie better. The story is a clever adventure which mixes real world events with science fiction elements and puts it in the backdrop of one of the most romantic times and places in film history. “The Rocketeer” was a modest success and not a break out hit that would justify a sequel. The movie harkens back to the serial adventures of the 1940s but is based on a racy 1982 graphic novel/comic, which has enjoyed greater literary success than it’s cinematic cousin. There are some obvious changes made in adapting this to the big screen. The biggest change was altering the character of Jenny Blake. Instead of the somewhat seedy “party girl/stripper” she is in the comic, she becomes a more wholesome ingenue. She is an innocent young actress, trying to break into the movies by playing in the crowd scenes in the movies being manufactured at the Hollywood Dream Factories of the Golden Age.

air racesRace PlaneJenny’s boyfriend is Cliff Secord, a barnstorming pilot trying to get his new plane ready for the national air races. Southern California was in a growth spurt when it comes to aviation. By 1939 more than half the planes in the country were made in the state. Aviation was a glamorous venture, which made heroes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has an extensive collection of the “buzz bomb” type planes used by the racers of the time. This was the golden age of aviation and it crosses paths in our story with the golden age of Hollywood. Cliff and his mechanic mentor Peevy discover a rocket pack, hidden in their old bi-plane by gangsters trying to escape from the FBI. The crooks substitute an old vacuum cleaner for the rocket and when their car explodes, destroying Cliff’s racing plane, the feds believe the rocket was destroyed as well. So Cliff and Peevy look to the Rocket as a way of making back some money to restore their dreams of racing in the Nationals. It turns out that the gangsters are seeking the rocket pack for a Hollywood star. In 1980, celebrity biographer Charles Higham published a book that claimed that Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of “the Adventures of Robin Hood” was a Nazi spy. The book was widely criticized by scholars and reviewers for the slipshod reasoning that Higham used to reach his conclusions. In fact, Flynn’s family sued, but since Flynn had died in 1959, the courts tossed the case on the legal premise that the dead can’t be libeled. Flash forward ten years and the slander is now being used in a slightly disguised manner. The film Jenny is working on stars Neville Sinclair, a character clearly based on Errol Flynn. The confluence of events and setting creates a truly entertaining story, that anyone who loves movies should appreciate.

RestaurantShapedLikeBulldogThe look of the film is outstanding. The airfield out in the valley is stocked with old bi-wings and hopped up racing planes. The wooden bleachers used at the airshow and the hanger where many early events take place give a genuine feel for the aviation industry of the period. Not too far from the airfield is a diner that caters to the pilots and mechanics. It is modeled after a real food joint here in Los Angeles at the time. The interior is a lot more spacious than the exterior would allow, so a little movie magic has to be forgiven. One of the nice touches in the set is the wall near the telephone where at one point the bad guys discover the phone number for Jenny, the girl they are at that point trying to track down. rocketeer2

south seas capture There are dozens of little touches like this that make the film feel incredibly authentic. In the Hollywood sequences, there is a large set for “The South Seas Club”, an upscale nightclub and restaurant, run by Eddie Valentine, the mobster being employed by Sinclair to obtain the rocket. The Front of the club is clearly on a backlot street but the interior looks luxurious and ethereal. The big band singer makes her appearance rising out of a giant clam shell. The tables, booths and dance floors remind us of a hundred art deco sets from 1930s era films. Only here the lighting is colored in dramatic flourishes of green and blue. When Neville leaves Jenny at their table to go and speak to Eddie in his office, you can see a mermaid swimming in a large fish tank behind him. As Cliff sneaks into the club, he hides in the laundry room, labeled with a nice deco font on the sign. Everywhere, there is attention to the kinds of details that might be ignored in a lesser production.

Howard Hughes and the FBI ultimately track down Cliff, and reveal to him the importance of the rocket pack. There is a brilliant one minute propaganda piece done in simple animation that conveys the breadth of the danger that “The Rocketeer” must prevent.

Suddenly, the story takes on broader implications and you can see why Cliff has to try to save Jenny, because otherwise she could be sacrificed in the interests of a bigger world. The Hughes scenes are some of the best in the film because they feature the actor Terry O’Quinn who has been making everything he appears in better for the last thirty three years. The famous “Spruce Goose” plane that had been part of a wartime project mired in controversy, makes an advance appearance here in model form. There is a fun little escape bit that features the plane and O’Quinn has a line that foretells some of the later controversy. Since I have mentioned one of the supporting players, it would be a little unfair to ignore the other actors that help bring this piece of romantic pulp to life. Alan Arkin was playing old way back in 1991, his character Peevy is the wizened mentor to our hero. His line delivery and general demeanor are solid as always but he adds a twinkle in the eye whenever the aviation mechanics get discussed, making his character a lot more interesting than he would otherwise have been. John Polito, a ubiquitous presence on TV and in movies plays Bigelow, the smarmy manager of the airfield and show that Cliff moonlights for. The sight gag concerning his character’s resolution is funny but a bit disturbing. An actor I have always appreciated, despite the fact that he never had a role that allowed him to be front and center is Ed Lauter. He plays FBI agent Fitch with a sneer that he could trademark. When the tommy guns come out on a couple of occasions, you can see the glee in his eye as the tough guy gets to do what he does best.

rocketeer4The three leads of the picture are cast perfectly. The luminous Jennifer Connelly is Jenny Blake, and she sparkles as the damsel in distress. She is a love interest that would clearly make both men stop and take notice. Her character is also a lot more engaged in the plot than simply being the object of rescue. She links the characters together and her soft line delivery keeps the character from becoming shrill like others in similar roles have become. The scenes where she engages in a uncertain seduction sequence with Neville Sinclar after being drugged by him are incredibly sexy without being vulgar. The switch in character might be off putting to fans of the comics, but it made the love angle much more effective in the movie. While we might have enjoyed seeing her as a Bettie Page stand in, her character is more interesting with the change and it helps broaden the appeal of the movie. Billy Campbell was a stalwart hero type, with an eager manner and a handsome face. He brought a certain naivete to the part of Cliff Secord. The pilot is so caught up in the aviation issues that he doesn’t always see how important his girl is to him. When he sees the propaganda film, it is like he awakens from a being a frivolous adventurer to becoming a hero. He had of course done heroic things earlier in the movie, but usually without much thought. His decision to escape the FBI and go after the Nazi spy ring himself is based in part on Jenny but also on the seriousness of the threat. When he evaded the gangsters at the South Seas Club, it is almost comic..

the-rocketeer hero When he escapes the clutches of the Nazi’s, he grabs a gun, something he had not done before. The shot of him on top of the Griffith Observatory, with the flag waving behind him as he launched toward the airship, is the moment he is branded “HEROIC”.

The final piece of the puzzle is the great Timothy Dalton. Denied an opportunity to continue as James Bond, this was his next major project and it is a solid indicator of the quality actor that the Bond franchise lost. Dalton plays Sinclair as hero, villain, clown and threat. He is oily smoothness when he tries to seduce Jenny in an attempt to locate the rocket. He plays the “star” on the movie set, both as a real actor and as a Prima donna. When he banters with Paul Sorvino playing gangster Eddie Valentine, you can detect the disdain this big movie star, secret agent feels for having to consort with hoods. When he responds to Jenny’s accusation near the end of the film that “everything about you is a lie”, you can hear the ego come out in his retort “It wasn’t lies Jenny, it was acting.”Neville Sinclair

“The Rocketeer” is rousing piece of nostalgia. It combines Hollywood and aviation at the height of their romantic periods and presents us with a credible love story to boot. The mixture of real characters with fictional representations of real characters and finally fictional characters, works to build a fun and exciting adventure story. Even if you can’t get behind the story however, there is amazing production design that will evoke the era in a thousand ways. The director Joe Johnson revisits this territory in the recent Marvel Super Hero flick, Captain America: The First Avenger. Johnson has the right touch for this time period. The nightclub sequences and the stunt show all reflect careful planning. Just as an illustration of the love Johnson seems to have for the period, listen to the big band singer. She performs for a longer period than needed to set the tone and her arrival is special despite the fact that she is merely scenery. Listen to the James Horner score and see how it is used to set the tone so frequently. The dialogue is filled with 30’s slang and aviation jargon and the gangsters look like the crooks in the movies, even if real crooks don’t look like that. This is a great family film and I can’t imagine that anyone out there with kids over the age of eight, wouldn’t be thrilled to share this inventive big screen adventure with them. Don’t be surprised if they start running around with pots on their heads instead of cape. This movie can inspire that kind of childhood imagination.

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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Double O Countdown: Licence to Kill

The last of Timothy Dalton’s time as James Bond is a nice piece of revenge drama, that feels like an 80’s film starring Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Bond goes after the drug kingpin that mutilated his best friend and murdered his best friends wife. The British Secret Service takes a dim view of revenge and has basically disavowed Bond. The original title was to be “Licence Revoked” but someone at EON was afraid American audience would not know what revoked meant. 007 tracks down the kingpin and uses a seed of disloyalty to bring down his empire. The movie is filled with more violence and torture than the usual Bond film. This would never have been a movie that starred Roger Moore. Dalton’s more cold blooded and realistic take on Bond is a perfect match for this gritty story, with one of the best Bond villans ever, Franz Sanchez AKA Robert Davi.

This entry in the series is extremely spoiler heavy. Proceed with caution if you have not seen the film.

001  Another Plot Point from the Novel Live and Let Die, adds to a film with a different story.

Felix Leiter has been Bond’s CIA counterpart since the first Bond novel. In the movies he has been an underused character, but in this film, he gets a bigger role. Making a return to the part is David Hedison, who played Leiter in “Live and Let Die”. Temporarily assigned to the DEA, Felix is tortured by Sanchez using a shark and a pulley system.

His mangled body is returned to his home where James discovers his dead bride and finds a sarcastic note with a twisted pun attached to his barely surviving friend.

Finally, a dirty DEA agent, who took a two million dollar bribe is cornered by Bond in the same shark tank that his friend was subjected to. As he hangs over the tank, trying to make a deal with Bond, James tosses him the money and tells him to keep it, of course the suitcase full of cash causes the treacherous turncoat to fall to his doom.

002  Secondary Bad Guy gets what is coming to him.

As I said, the movie is full of sadistic moments, fortunately most of them are turned on the bad guys. Milton Krest, the diving company owner who is partners with Sanchez, is framed by Bond to appear as if he is trying to steal from his partner.

First he is tossed in the decompression chamber used for deep sea divers on his boat.

Sanchez turns up the pressure and then suddenly breaks off the safety valve, causing Krest to basically explode.

Then he tells his men to launder the money was was hidden there, and he does not mean simply run it through their dummy companies.

003  Action Scene from Act 2.

John Glen, who was the director for all of the Bond films made in the 1980s, knew his way around the action scenes. His Bond films are filled with great stunts and this film featured one of the best. Bond sneaks aboard the Wavekrest, the ship used to guide all the smuggling operations, and discovers a whole bunch of information. His companion is killed and he has to make a venge filled escape himself. As he fights Krest’s men under water, he shoots a spear-gun with a rope attached into the pontoon of a smugglers plane. It yanks him from their clutches and he performs a series of amazing stunts to get away.

 

He skies on the balls of his feet as he is dragged by the plane, and then whips around to grab onto the plane.

 Once the plane takes off the water, he has to get aboard still.

004  Robert Davi as Franz Sanchez

The Drug Kingpin Sanchez has basically bought himself a country to hide in, which renders him immune from extradition. Robert Davi plays Sanchez as a sadist with a smile. A smart guy who values loyalty, but who can be dragged down with suspicion.

 

He beats his cheating mistress with the tail of a stingray and has the heart of her lover cut out.

 He treats his pet iguana as well as most of the people who work for him, and he employs a sick murderer, played by a young Benicio DelToro, to do his dirty work.

Bond ingratiates himself into his camp and begins a campaign to take down the kingdom from the inside. Following the Godfather’s advice, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

005  Uncle Q

Q has been in almost all the Bond films before this, often supplying 007 in the field. Here he takes a much more paternalistic interest in James. Having been abandoned by the Secret Service, Bond is persona non grata , but Moneypenny tracks him down and sends Q to assist unofficially. Desmond Llewelyn gets to play spy a little and have a grad adventure with James and not just chastise him for ruining equipment.

A fun piece of extra business, maybe it is fan service, but you got to keep the fans happy, and it did that for me.

006  Revenge Death Number 3

Dario, Sanchez hired thug, recognizes Bond and blows his cover. Sanchez attempts to drop Bond into the grinder used to break up the bricks of heroin he is smuggling as liquid in gasoline.

Of course at the last minute Bond gets hooked on the conveyor belt and hangs over the grinder, Dario decides he needs to help Bond along.

Bond’s CIA Contract pilot and requisite Bond Girl comes along in time to shoot Dario and then Bond reverses their situations.

The result is a blood soaked ending, similar to the snow plow in “OHMSS”. I’m afraid I love it too much when the bad guys get the reward they deserve, This is the third villain to get his comeuppance on my list.

007  A Climax to a picture, that really is a climax.

Spoiler Warning

Bond pursues a caravan of gas trucks, loaded with liquefied heroin and mayhem results.

Taking over control of one truck, he manages to destroy or disable several others. Sanchez and his crew are alerted and wait for him with a stinger missile to end his plans. A clever piece of stunt driving defeats the aim of the stinger.

After dodging that bullet, the bad guys chase Bond but end up in a trail of fire, it is not hard to follow the trail of destruction Bond leaves at the end of a movie.

Their car flys off the road and just misses hitting the plane flown by Pam Bovier.

 At the bottom of a hill, the crashed truck that both Bond and Sanchez were on lays in ruins with gasoline poring on the ground. A soaked Sanchez raises his machete to do in Bond when 007 gets him to pause for just a second so he can explain why he has done all of this. He flashes a genuine Felix Lighter.

He flicks it engulfing Sanchez in flame.

Multiple explosions ensue.

James Bond Will return in: “Goldeneye”

Double O Countdown: The Living Daylights

We enter a new era of James Bond Films with “The Living Daylights”. For the first twenty-five years of Cinematic James Bond, there were two actors who held the throne with a brief interruption by a usurper. For the next twenty five years, the role was dominated by two other actors, after a brief reign by a Crown Prince that could not hold the throne. Timothy Dalton had been eyed as a James Bond as early as “OHMSS”, he finally got the role by default when Pierce Brosnan was held hostage by his television show. In my opinion, he might have given Connery a run for his money as the best James Bond, if only legal chaos had not pulled him from the role. As it is, we have two sparkling adventures that just begin to show his promise.

001  Another Snow Escape

Bond comes equipped with a couple of modes of transportation from opposite ends of the spectrum. He starts off with a Q provided Aston Martin Volante, with special modifications including a heads up display, rocket launchers, a set of skids for the snow and a jet boost.

The high tech vehicle only helps out our hero in the first part of the chase. He has to improvise with the last half and that involves tobogganing down the slopes in a cello case.

It is one of those amusing and innovative ways that 007 finds to use his natural instinct for survival.

Of course it is a filmed entertainment, so to make it more fun a gag is added at the end which doesn’t spoil the bit but does remind us that we are watching a James Bond Adventure. As they escape past the border, Bond gets the cello over the gate by tossing it to himself.

002  Mujahideen –Afghanistan before it gets even nastier

As part of the plot, Bond and Kara escape a Russian Military base in Afghanistan (during the Russian Occupation) and are taken prisoner or into protective custody by the freedom fighting Mujahideen.


This section revels one of the complications of political/military operations in that part of the world. The insurgents work with a local warlord who is selling opium to the Russian General Koskov.

At the end of the film, M introduces the Mujahideen leader to General Golol, an awkward moment diffused by Kara wondering where James has got to.

003 Opening Training Sequence

We see commandos parachuting onto Gibraltar, but soon realize from the paint guns being used that it is a training exercise, at least until the commandos start being executed by a mysterious figure on the island. Bond is revealed and chases down the assassin in a jeep loaded with explosives. It crashes off a cliff and explodes.

 

But not before James pulls the cord on his backup parachute and escapes.

The new James Bond arrives on a yacht with a bored beautiful woman, and we know all is right with the world.

004  The Dirty Job of a Secret Agent

Bond has never liked the idea of simply being a tool to be used in the place his superior sees best. He does not relish the role of assassin, although it does come up on occasion. From the original story by Ian Fleming, Bond has to shoot a sniper that is trying to kill a defector the British want.

The head of the station seems to be a prig who views him as a thug, and doesn’t want to trust 007 at all.

Bond spots the snipe but recognizes she is an amateur, not a professional killer. As an admirer of the feminine form and a man who doesn’t kill for no reason, he makes a snap decision.

He shoots to miss.

005  SMERSH

The name has not been mentioned by the film series since “From Russia with Love” and it was on;ly mentioned in passing there. The name is a contraction of “Smiert Spionam”, meaning “Death to Spies”. It was the main organization that Bond faced in the novels but was replaced in the films by the non-aligned SPECTRE.  As a plot point, to provoke the British into acting, the Organization is revived.

The death of two British intelligence agents is laid at the foot of General Pushkin, played by John Rhys-Davies  (From Indian Jones and The Lord of the Rings).

 Bond knows better and the plot thickens when he refuses to go along with his orders. Again, he refuses to be a mere assassin.

006  More Amazing Air Stunts from the Bond Team

Near the end of the film, Bond has taken control of a giant C-130 plane, transporting the opium out of Afghanistan. Koskov’s assassin Necros has gotten on board and as a bomb is ticking, the cargo bay door opens and a great fight stunt is done in mid-air (and on a sound-stage)

Another tour de force for the James Bond Stunt Team.

007  James Bond is not the only proficient agent in MI-6.

When Necros infiltrates the safe house to “kidnap” Koskov, he encounters another MI-6 agent in the kitchen of the manor house. There is a terrific fight that James Bond has nothing to do with, but one of his colleagues, a nameless agent keeping watch,  performs above the call of duty, although he ultimately fails to keep Koskov out of Necros’ hands.

It is a terrific fight sequence, and one of my favorite moments because all the other agents are not just bodies to tumble when the shooting starts.

James Bond Will Return in:

 “License to Kill”