At the time I saw this movie when it was first released back in '91, I was familiar with the comic book origin of the character as created by Dave Stevens, but had never seen or read any of the tales in that format. That remains the case yet today. Which is not meant in any negative way other than as an admission that my exposure to the Rocketeer and his story starts and ends with this film.
My reasons for being interested when the movie came out were rooted pretty firmly in the old Commando Cody TV series that I watched and liked a lot as a kid; and also TV exposure to the old Republic Pictures serials that first introduced a "Rocket Man" cinema hero. There were three of those movies --- King of the Rocket Men, Radar Men from the Moon, and Zombies of the Stratosphere. While the hero had basically the same jet pack, helmet, etc., in only one of them (Radar Men) was he called Commando Cody. And when Cody showed up in his own TV series, he for some reason wore a Lone Ranger-type mask under his flying helmet. It was all rather confusing, but as a kid I don't recall minding too much, I just liked the flying scenes with the jet pack and all the fist fights and other action. As far as story and/or plots I don't know that I ever noticed and I sure as heck don't remember enough to tell you even a shred of one today.
So catching up with ol' helmet head and his flaming back pack thirty-some years later, when Rocketeer came out, seemed like a fun idea. Okay, I'll toss out another admission … Another chance to ogle Jennifer Connelly, fresh on the heels of her appearances in Career Opportunities and The Hot Spot, maybe also factored a tiny bit in wanting to catch this flick.
And I probably would have ended up figuring that the clinging white satin gown she wore throughout the whole last half of the movie made it worth the price of admission even if the rest of the movie was a stinker.
But the added good news was – and is – that the movie is far from a stinker. It is clever and well done straight across the board. Offering a well-balanced mix of humor and romance and action --- up to and including a terrific serving of good old-fashioned derring-do and even a nice dose of rousing patriotism. When a gang of L.A. hoodlums are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a team of G-men as they are using Tommy guns to blast a pack of invading Nazis who've landed via a giant dirigible, the head gangster proclaims, "I may be a crook and an outlaw, but ahead of that I'm a red-blooded American and I hate stinkin' Nazis!" … well, doggone it, it's kinda stirring. As is the moment when the Rocketeer, just before he takes flight to go save the girl and give what-for to the slimy traitor who has been aiding and abetting the Nazis, pauses on the rooftop of an observatory and is posed momentarily against a giant, rippling American flag. The whole thing is played slightly tongue in cheek, but at the same time with a lot of sincerity.
The time is 1938. The central plot to all of this is a race between a team of G-men and a pack of Nazi spies (aided by the local hoods who at first are unaware that it's Nazis they are dealing with) to get their hands on the rocket pack that has fallen inadvertently into the hands of a barn-storming stunt pilot (who will, through trial and error and the series of circumstances forced upon him, become "the Rocketeer"). The Nazis want to use the jet pack as a prototype to develop an aerial "army" of heavily armed rocket men who will invade out of the sky in great swarms. The Feds (assisted by none other than Howard Hughes, whose resources developed the rocket pack) are bent on stopping them.
In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Connelly, the rest of the cast includes: Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer; Alan Arkin as his mentor and airplane mechanic Peevy; Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine, the mob boss; and Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair, a swashbuckling Errol Flynn-type movie star who is in reality a Nazi collaborator.
It's all great fun, done with a lot of energy and in fine style. If you've never seen it or not in a while, you really ought to hunt it down and give it a viewing.
I watched it the other night, for the first time in a long time, with my youngest grandson. He enjoyed the heck out of it … and I did too!