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A stunt pilot living in 1930's California finds a stolen jet-pack and uses the device to fight gangsters and Nazis as The Rocketeer.
For more about The Rocketeer and the The Rocketeer Blu-ray release, see the The Rocketeer Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on November 30, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Terry O'Quinn
Director: Joe Johnston
» See full cast & crew
The Rocketeer Blu-ray Review
The Rocke-who? The Rocketeer! Don't you read the papers?
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, November 30, 2011
If you thought Joe Johnston's ties to Raiders of the Lost Ark were the reason the director shot to the top of Marvel's shortlist to helm Captain America: The First Avenger, think again. Once upon a time, there was a young man who fell in love with a high-flying, home-brewed superhero adventure called The Rocketeer. Twenty years later, that same man, sitting in a very comfortable chair of power at Marvel Studios, was asked who he thought could bring one of the comic publisher's trickiest heroes to life on the big screen. Three guesses as to whose name came up early and often in that conversation. Conjecture aside, though, Marvel Studios execs weren't the only ones who thought Johnston was perfectly suited to Cap. Before the recent superhero boom gave way to the box office titans and viable genre we know and love today, any comic fan worth his adamantium would count The Rocketeer among the greatest comicbook movies of all time. For many, Johnston's second feature film still holds those honors; some even mention it in the same breath as Superman: The Movie, and for good reason. While The Rocketeer hasn't aged as gracefully as other notable classics, it still stands as one of the most thrilling comicbook adaptations of the '90s and a nostalgic favorite sure to win over newcomers as readily as it appeals to its faithful fold.
For those asking themselves, "the Rocke-who?" The Rocketeer, like writer/illustrator Dave Stevens' Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics and Dark Horse Comics limited series before it, is a fast-paced aerial celebration of the Saturday matinee serials of the '30s and '40s; a humble spectacle of smart, enthusiastic filmmaking brimming with hotshot pilots, brilliant inventors, gorgeous dames, gun-toting gangsters, stratosphere-scraping stunts, Nazi agents, mustache-twirling masterminds and hulking assassins. The story? When a down-on-his-luck stunt pilot named Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) finds a rocket pack prototype a group of mobsters stole from Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), he becomes the Rocketeer, a helmeted hero beloved by the public and sought by the FBI. But government agents aren't the only ones chasing Secord. Before Cliff knows what he's gotten himself into, he's being targeted by gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and his Tommy Gunning goons, shady movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a deadly stone-jawed lug named Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) and, eventually, Hitler's finest. The Rocketeer doesn't have to go at it alone, though. With the help of trusty mechanic Peevy Peabody (Alan Arkin) and a town ready to protect one of their own, Cliff takes to the skies, races to save the love of his life, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly), and with her, the United States.
Even twenty years later, The Rocketeer is an absolute joy to watch. Yes, it's possible my opinion is tainted by two decades of nostalgia, and yes, the fact that I first watched Cliff rocket through the clouds at the ripe old age of twelve doesn't make me the most objective reviewer on staff. But that's the beauty of Johnston's film. While ILM's visual effects haven't exactly withstood the test of time, while certain elements are too cartoonish for their own good (the prosthetic prison that is Taylor's face and the rocket-fodder nature of the Nazis represent two cringe-inducing missteps), and while you can spot a poorly disguised stunt man from a mile away, movie magic isn't chained to such trivialities. The Rocketeer has spirit -- unabashed moxie, actually -- and embraces its serial roots without hesitation, regret or apology. Johnston nails two things from the outset: pacing and casting. Even when Cliff's feet are firmly planted on the ground, the movie hurtles along with the kind of energy and vitality that can only be derived from a director and production team fully committed and invested in their vision. The film never stalls, never idles, and never crashes back down to Earth. It takes off and doesn't look back, roaring around each twist and turn with ease. And Johnston's casting is, hyperbole notwithstanding, flawless. Campbell throws a punch, kisses a girl and launches into the heavens like the A-list leading man he should have become; Arkin and O'Quinn are terrific, each in their own separate ways; Connelly steals every heart there is to be stolen; and Dalton is as devious and dastardly as a vile comicbook villain should be, yet rarely pushes his performance over the top, dwelling within the shadows when others might leap out and scream "boo!" It's an impressive lineup to be sure (I forgot just how many notable mugs pop up on screen), and one that Johnston uses to his full advantage.
But The Rocketeer is much more than a '30s serial throwback. It dives, rolls and rockets ahead with a superheroic confidence that, in 1991, was way ahead of its time. Shades of Iron Man, Captain America and Spider-Man -- even the Green Lantern that could have been, should have been had DC and Warner thought to nab Johnston -- are everywhere, and the influence of Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie is apparent throughout. Along with Superman, The Rocketeer helped prove lighter comicbook camp and page-to-panel-to-celluloid entertainment could co-exist on screen with dramatic tension, cinematic flair, whirlwind action and memorable performances. It isn't proof positive, mind you; Johnston's relative inexperience rears its head here and there, the FBI agents and gangsters come on too strong, and a few oddly staged scenes undermines the film's otherwise delicate balance. (Lothar folds his victims in half. Seriously.) But there's an argument to be made for movie magic here as well. Even when Johnston misjudges or the film misfires, the mistakes somehow, in some strange way, make The Rocketeer that much more charming. It doesn't always hold up to critical scrutiny, but it always holds up to the wistful whimsy of childhood and the fond memories of adulthood. My son didn't care about the FX seams, the chunky prosthetics or the campy henchmen. Like I did so many years ago, he simply lost himself in the adventure, in the dazzling heights of Johnston's own nostalgia, and I lost myself right along with him; father and son, bonding over a flight of jet-packing fancy. Call me a sap, but it's an invaluable shared experience that only a few select films are capable of providing, and I feel the same rush of proud-papa warm-fuzzies every time I add another movie to our regular rotation. The Rocketeer isn't perfect. It never has been. It is a blast, though, and that shouldn't be taken lightly.
The Rocketeer Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Rocketeer boasts a solid 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer that should erase any painful memories of its disappointing 1999 DVD counterpart. Still, I fear more casual viewers may not be as pleased with the results. Johnston's film has never been a top to bottom razor-sharp stunner, Hiro Narita's original photography is sometimes softer than some might anticipate, and several scenes -- specifically those shot largely in shadow, nighttime encounters, and FX-heavy sequences -- will undoubtedly lead to accusations of DNR and other unsavory remastering techniques. Have no fear, though, dear readers. While crush is a minor factor, ringing is apparent from time to time, and textures aren't always crystal clear, this is a more than commendable approximation of The Rocketeer Johnston and Narita prepped for theatrical release in 1991. Colors are sometimes bleak, sometimes bold, but always satisfying; select primaries light up the screen, while skintones are (mostly) well-saturated; deep comic-ink blacks effectively plunge the image into darkness; and any contrast inconsistencies and wavering I noticed seemed to be inherited from the source. Don't brace yourself for a hazy mess either. Although filmic softness certainly plays a role in the proceedings, edge definition is relatively impressive, many a closeup fares quite well, some fine textures still manage to make their way into the mix, and the film's velvety veneer of grain, though a touch unwieldy on occasion, is present and accounted for. As to the encode itself, I didn't catch sight of any significant anomalies -- artifacting, banding, aliasing or otherwise -- and the only thing that struck me as out of sorts, aside from the aforementioned crush and ringing, involves some limited delineation shortcomings.
All that said, The Rocketeer has never looked better. There's still room for improvement -- a more complete overhaul and high-dollar restoration would have gone a long way -- but most fans will be happy with this release until the next Anniversary Edition opportunity presents itself.
The Rocketeer Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Rocketeer doesn't sound like a new superhero actioner -- Iron Man leaves it in the dust -- but as twenty-year-old catalog adventures go, Disney's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track isn't completely blown away by DC and Marvel's big-screen big guns. Key word: completely. Voices are a tad thin when the action moves outdoors, but dialogue is generally strong, clear and intelligible throughout. Rear speaker activity comes and goes as it pleases, even though a few standout directional effects lend welcome (but somewhat artificial) movement to the experience, and LFE output is rather weak for a genre pic. The track's saving grace, then? James Horner's rousing score. From stirring flourishes of trumpets to the swelling surge of strings, his post-Depression themes and commanding orchestral pieces fill the soundfield, envelop the listener and bring The Rocketeer hurtling into existence. When all else underwhelms, Horner's music soars. Not that underwhelming is the mix's M.O. Newcomers may shrug their shoulders every now and again, but fans will have a tough time wiping the grin off their face.
The Rocketeer Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
20th Anniversary? What 20th Anniversary? The Rocketeer touches down without any special features (other than a standard definition 4:3 original theatrical trailer).
The Rocketeer Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Don't let twenty years of rust scare you off. The Rocketeer may not be as thrilling as it once was, but it remains one of the best comicbook adaptations of the '90s and a high-flying suerphero adventure sure to rope in plenty of fans, new and old. Disney's Blu-ray release isn't too shabby either. A suite of look-back extras would have made the 20th Anniversary Edition absolutely irresistible, but the film's excellent video transfer and decent lossless audio track makes it worth purchasing regardless.
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