The Rocketeer (film)

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A 1991 Disney live-action film, adapted from Dave Stevens' series of comic books, The Rocketeer follows the adventures of its titular hero: stunt pilot Cliff Secord, who uses a serendipitously found experimental rocket pack to fight crime in 1938 Los Angeles.

Anticipating by a dozen years the trend towards more naturalistic (as opposed to heavily stylized, e.g. Dick Tracy) film adaptations of comic books, The Rocketeer is, if not an exceptional movie, still an underrated and unexpectedly strong one. Perhaps this is due to solid casting choices (Alan Arkin, as Cliff's mentor, has most of the best lines, and delivers them with terrific understated dryness), perhaps due to its lovely Art Deco art design, or perhaps due to an exceptionally butt-kicking score by James Horner. It is a "family movie" in the best sense of the term.

It was nominated for a Hugo in 1992, but lost to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Although never reaching the same heights of popularity of other comic book films (including its contemporaries), this movie's fandom is still quite strong today, and the film has aged rather well. Its director Joe Johnston would later helm the vastly more succesful comic book film Captain America: The First Avenger. The material may be different, but the feel and heart contained in the two films are ever present.

On another note entirely, its primary musical theme by James Horner, Main Title/Take Off, is practically a movie trailer standard.


Tropes used in The Rocketeer (film) include:
  • Ace Pilot: played straight with Cliff, a stunt pilot; subverted with Malcolm, allegedly a World War I ace, but now in his dotage.
  • Action Survivor: Cliff.
  • Adaptational Badass: Cliff Secord between the comic book (in which he was assisted by other pulp heroes) and the movie (which he actually saved other people, mostly by himself).
  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie is very true to the tone and style of the original comic, although for obvious reasons, Dave Stevens' fanservice drawings of women in skimpy clothing didn't quite make the cut.
  • All Part of the Show: Said word for word when the Rocketeer first appears, and saves bumbling pilot Malcolm from fiery death. However, the airfield owner saying that has a hard time keeping up that line as the crashing plane destroys another of his fuel trucks.
  • Alternate History / Alternate Universe: But only slightly so. Everything's mostly the same as it was in our 1938, except Howard Hughes has invented a jetpack, the Germans still use zeppelins, and the Hollywoodland sign ends up losing the "-land" eleven years early.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Believe it or not, ridiculously-shaped buildings like the Bulldog Cafe really did exist; they were something of a fad in midcentury Los Angeles. Perhaps the most famous is the Brown Derby restaurant, a stars' hangout in old-time Hollywood and the place where the Cobb salad was invented. Since they were built for novelty, not durability, most are gone--but a handful survive, most notably Randy's Donuts of Inglewood, which is shaped like a giant donut.
  • Are We Getting This?: At the airshow.
  • Ascended Fangirl / Broken Pedestal: Jenny is a huge fan of Neville Sinclair until she sees he's a creep. And a Nazi spy.
  • Be My Valentine: "100% American" Eddie Valentine, played with cuddly menace by Paul Sorvino.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Cliff, Jennifer and the gangsters are all held at gunpoint by Nazi paratroopers, about to be mowed down at Sinclair's order. Suddenly, headlights light up and armed men appear with tommy guns while their leader roars, "This is the FBI! Throw down your guns!"
    • Then, later on, Howard Hughes and Peevy show up in an autogyro and rescue Cliff and Jenny from the exploding zeppelin.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The German is left untranslated, though they got one bit of German wrong. At one point, the Nazi G-Man says "Ich habe meine Bestellung", which means "I have my orders", but "Bestellung" actually refers to the type of orders you'd give a waiter. He should've said "Befehle".
  • Bookcase Passage: In Neville Sinclair's mansion.
  • Bruce Wayne Held Hostage: Valentine's mooks keep the airshow pilots--Cliff included--hostage at the cafe.
  • The Brute: Lothar.
  • The Casanova: Subverted; Neville tries to seduce Jenny, but his chat-up lines are all from his own movies which Jenny (as an avid fan) knows off by heart.
    • The Bookcase Passage to Neville's Nazi communications room was even opened by a book called "The Conquests of Casanova".
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Nazi airship is briefly mentioned in a newsreel the characters watch at the opening of the film. You've probably forgotten all about it until it suddenly shows up overhead at the climax.
    • The bullet hole in the rocket pack.
    • Cliff's habit of chewing gum, which saves his life covering the bullet hole on the rocket pack and dooms Neville Sinclair's when Cliff slides it off. So would this be Chekhov's gum?
  • Climbing Climax
  • Contrived Clumsiness: Cliff Secord does this when he's at the South Seas Club, where his girlfriend Jenny is with Neville Sinclair, who's looking for the rocketpack. He "accidentally" spills some champagne on Jenny just before she tells Neville about him and how he's got the rocketpack.
  • Cool Helmet: The Rocketeer's with a big dorsal fin to enable him to steer.
  • Cool Old Guy: Peevy.
  • Cool Plane: Actual flying Gee Bee racer replicas.
  • Creator Cameo: Blink and you'll miss him, but that's Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens playing the test pilot in the German film Howard Hughes shows Cliff.
  • Dance of Romance: Neville Sinclair attempts to invoke this in his seduction of Jenny at the South Seas Club. It doesn't stick.
  • The Danza: Jennifer Connelly as Jenny.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Peevy.
  • Death From Above: The airship.
  • Deep-Cover Agent: Neville Sinclair.
  • Dieselpunk: The art direction has a lovely Deco Punk look.
  • Disney Villain Death: A variation: Sinclair voluntarily flies out of the zeppelin with the rocketpack, but its fuel leak causes it to burst into a massive fireball, causing Neville to crash into the Hollywoodland sign and explode spectacularly.
  • Disposable Pilot: As Neville Sinclair is making his escape aboard a Nazi zeppelin, the captain tells Sinclair that their pilot is the best in Germany, when Lothar's unconscious body knocks the pilot out of the zeppelin.
  • Damsel in Distress: Subverted, somewhat, as Jenny does participate in her own rescue.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!
  • Enemy Mine: During a gunfight in the climax, Valentine finds himself fighting the Nazis alongside the police chief. They glance at each other, and then resume firing.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Eddie Valentine quits working for Sinclair after finding out he's a Nazi.
    • Almost Truth in Television as a lot of Real Life American gangsters during that era weren't too thrilled with fascism, especially because Mussolini persecuted the Sicilian Families back in the Old Country. And Hitler wasn't a favorite of the Jewish mobsters either.
    • Even before the reveal, Valentine is quite resentful of Sinclair:

Sinclair: Valentine, we're going to do what I think is necessary.
Valentine: And that includes breaking one of my men in half, huh? The next time you go after one of my men, I'll kill ya.
Sinclair: Don't threaten me, Eddie. Just do your job.
Valentine: Hey, Sinclair? (lights cigar) If the Feds take me, I'm taking you with me. I'm gonna tell them everything.
Sinclair: Who do you think they'll believe? A cheap crook, or the number three box-office star in America?
(as Sinclair leaves, Valentine throws his cigar at the door)
Valentine: Number three jerk!

  • Exact Eavesdropping: Sinclair hears Cliff talking to Jenny about the rocketpack on the set of his latest movie.
  • Expy: Lothar is Rondo Hatton, while Neville Sinclair is Errol Flynn, who was (wrongly) accused of being a Nazi spy.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!
  • Fan Service: Jennifer Connelly, as she puts on a stocking; her cleavage in the latter parts of the movie. Or basically, just Jennifer Connelly. 20-year-old Jennifer Connelly. Wow.
  • Floating Head Syndrome: One of the DVD release's many sins. The Blu-Ray release, too. All this despite the beautiful Art Deco poster (see page image)... it is to weep.
  • Foot Chase with a Side Order of Chef: Cliff Secord is chased by Lothar and other gangsters through the kitchen of the South Seas Club. Justified as Cliff was disguised as a waiter.
  • George Lucas Throwback: To the adventure serials of the 1930s. See also Two-Fisted Tales.
  • Giant Mook: Lothar.
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: At the South Seas Club.
  • Go Seduce My Arch-Nemesis
  • Greasy Spoon: The Bulldog Cafe.
  • Groin Attack: Cliff tries this against Lothar aboard the zeppelin, though it only annoys Lothar, and worse, Cliff gets hurt trying it.
  • Hand Wave: The reason the jetpack's operator's legs don't get fried to a crisp by the exhaust is that it's a "cool" propulsion powered by alcohol.
  • Hello Again, Officer: Cliff keeps running into the same three feds...
  • Historical Domain Character: Howard Hughes.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • Cliff escapes from Howard Hughes by grabbing a (large) model plane and jumping off a balcony, gliding to safety. The plane is a model of the "Spruce Goose", and Hughes comments, "The son-of-a-bitch will fly."
    • Los Angeles' famous "Hollywood" sign used to read "Hollywoodland". Neville Sinclair makes a dramatic exit from the burning airship (see So Long, Suckers!, below), right after he smirks "I'll miss Hollywood..." He then crashes into the last four letters of the sign, obliterating them. (In reality, the "-land" was removed in 1949, to reduce maintenance costs.)
    • The newsreel shows that the first place to be visited by the German zeppelin is Lakehurst, NJ.
      • That could be more of a case of Shown Their Work, since that was one of a handful of places in the country with airship landing facilities.
  • I Have Your Girl / Come Alone: Cliff is summoned to the Griffith Park Observatory. Hey, it was 1938; these tropes were NEW!
  • Jet Pack
  • Lethally Expensive: When Howard Hughes shows Cliff the Nazi propaganda film, he says "Keep watching, kid. It cost a man's life to get this out of Germany."
  • Line-of-Sight Name: After such false starts as "Rocketman" and "Rocketboy", Bigelow coins "Rocketeer" after seeing the word "Pioneer".
  • Look Ma, No Plane
  • Male Gaze: When Jenny is introduced to famed comedian W.C. Fields, the camera shows us exactly why he is "Charmed. Doubly charmed" to meet her.
  • Match Cut: Hills to a close-up of bedsheets; a flaming airship to a bunch of oranges.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Averted--Peevy makes it to the end.
  • Middle Management Mook: Eddie Valentine
  • Mook Face Turn: Eddie Valentine, because working for a Nazi is not what he signed on for.
  • Mr. Fixit: Peevy
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jennifer Connelly at her peak.
  • Nazi Germany: As the Big Bad.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: When Cliff arrives at the South Seas Club, he hides the rocket and helmet in a laundry bag in the laundry room. When he returns, he finds the room full of a dozen more bags.
  • Newsreel
  • Nice Character, Mean Actor: Neville Sinclair.
  • Non-Indicative Name: In fact, everyone keeps calling the device in question "The Rocket" when everything that's shown tells us it's basically a jet engine.
    • Completely justified by the fact that in 1938 "jet engine" was something that only few people were aware of and even fewer could have recognized one.
  • No MacGuffin, No Winner: The rocketpack gets destroyed when Neville Sinclair crashes and burns into the Hollywoodland sign, although Peevy has reverse-engineered designs for another one.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Averted. The rocket pack we see is the protoype; Howard Hughes burns the plans ten minutes in, but Peevy draws new ones, with plans to build an improved version.
  • Not Wearing Tights
  • Not What I Signed on For: Valentine.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: An in-universe example: Neville Sinclair's English sounds a little more German once he gets on the Zeppelin.
  • Opera Gloves: Jenny
  • Papa Wolf: Eddie Valentine is protective of his fellow gangsters (see also: Even Evil Has Standards).
  • Parrot Expowhat: "The Rock-a-who?"
  • Police Are Useless: Until the end.
  • Recycled Trailer Music: This movie may not be very well-remembered, but unless you haven't been to a movie theater since 1991, you absolutely have heard this score used in trailers for dozens hundreds of other movies. Have a listen.
  • Romance on the Set: Lead actors Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly had a romance leading to a lengthy engagement, though they eventually called it off.
  • Secret Identity: Toyed with. The movie's compressed timescale (it takes place over three days) means that, over the course of the movie, Cliff's identity is a secret only in that it hasn't been publicly revealed, and not a lot of people have heard of the Rocketeer. There's no indication that he was trying particularly hard to keep it a secret--or even that he wanted to keep it a secret, long-term--and the film shows that anyone really interested in the Rocketeer's identity discovers it pretty quickly. In fact, when Cliff tells Jenny his big secret--that he's the Rocketeer--Jenny just says, "The Rock-a-who?"
  • Shout-Out: Cliff never flies without some Beeman's Gum, just like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Jenny is briefly dazzled by Neville's charm and star power, but quickly returns to her long-term boyfriend because he loves and respects her.
    • And because Neville keeps trying to court her by quoting lines from his own movies. And then there's the evil. Not the best dating tactic. Nor is chloroforming and kidnapping your date. And definitely not taking her hostage for a rocket pack, of all things.
  • So Long, Suckers!: A note-perfect example, complete with one-liner and swift, ironic death.
  • Stillborn Franchise: There were plans for a trilogy, but they were sadly scrapped because of the lackluster box-office performance.
  • Stocking Filler: Jenny's first scene.
  • Stupid Jetpack Hitler: Preventing this is the story's main plot.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: Towards the end, as Cliff picks up his helmet before flying after the zeppelin.
  • Thermal Dissonance: The rocketpack stays cool even after flight, attributed to a double-walled chamber and preheated fuel.
  • Tap on the Head: Many times; played with in that the victims sometimes recover faster than their assailants were planning.
  • Toasted Buns: An attempt at handwaving was made, though.
  • Today X, Tomorrow the World!: "Heute Europa, Morgen die Welt"
  • The Thirties
  • Those Two Guys: FBI agents Fitch and Wooly.
  • Those Wacky Nazis
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Some people said they didn't need to see the film, the trailer told the whole story.
  • Trojan Horse: The airship, ostensibly in Los Angeles for peaceful purposes.
  • Two-Fisted Tales: The comics and movie alike were loving homages to the Two-Fisted Tales of the Thirties.
  • Vanilla Edition: Another of the DVD's many sins. Unfortunately, the Blu-Ray also committed this, despite Disney promoting it as a 20th Anniversary Edition.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where Jenny hides the rocket pack plans.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Sinclair has it when he learns the jig is up and he is revealed as a Nazi. It first happens when he catches Jenny reading up on it and kidnaps her for real. It then becomes more obvious when Cliff manages to convince Valentine and his gang that Sinclair, their boss, is a Nazi. When the gangsters confront their former boss with this information, not only does Sinclair confirm this by holding them all hostage with a new gang, this one of Nazi soldiers lurking in the shadows, but he does all this while speaking in German!
  • Wicked Cultured: Neville Sinclair. Lothar, too, as he's introduced listening to opera when Sinclair calls him.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Everyone in the movie keeps calling it a "rocket" (Even Howard Hughes who built the damn thing) desite the fact that everything we see in the movie marks the device as a jetpack. Although this is Justified, as in the Thirties the jet engine wasn't exactly commonplace.
    • It's actually odder than it seems - the reason NASA has the Jet Propulsion Lab is because the word was actually used to refer to rockets as well.
      • 'Jet' refers to the stream of high-velocity gases exiting whichever device happens to be holding them. Technically, flatulence counts as a jet.
  • You Must Be Cold
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Since it's only a slightly alternate version of The Thirties (see above), the Germans use a zeppelin to visit 1938 Los Angeles (when in fact airship travel ended in 1937 with the Hindenburg).