From the films of his that I have seen, director Joe Johnston hasn't made a movie yet that I have disliked. Okay, I may have dodged his worst films (I've yet to see The Pagemaster and Hidalgo, to name two contenders) but the man seems to be a consistently safe pair of hands for mainstream blockbuster fare.
Not that you would always know that at the time. Just look at the poor reception for some of his perfectly acceptable outings (Jurassic Park III and the really very good The Wolfman). Which brings us to The Rocketeer.
I am not going to try claiming that The Rocketeer is a misunderstood masterpiece. I am not going to create any petition for it to be given a special edition re-release and some overdue sequels. I'm just here to tell you that it's a good film. Sometimes it's very good. It's also easy to see why it didn't really set the box office alight.
Bill Campbell plays a young pilot, Cliff, who finds a prototype jet pack that was stashed away by a thieving crook. Using the jet pack, with a helmet made by his buddy (Peevy, played by Alan Arkin), Cliff turns himself into quite the flying sensation. His real identity may be a secret but everyone will know him as The Rocketeer. Unfortunately, this gets him caught in the middle of a Nazi plot. It also doesn't help him look any better in front of his beautiful girlfriend (Jenny, played by Jennifer Connelly), or the dashing actor (Neville Sinclair, played by Timothy Dalton) who might be looking to steal her away.
Not quite lively and bright enough for younger viewers and a bit too silly in places for older viewers, The Rocketeer finds itself in a strange middle ground. It's hard to know who exactly it is made for. Having not read the graphic novel it was based on, I don't even know if fans of the source material would be pleased or disappointed. All I can say is that this always appealed to me thanks to the many mornings I found myself watching TV and catching some random episodes of King Of The Rocket Men.
As well as the main jetpack-based premise, there are a lot of other simple pleasures here. Campbell may not be the most charismatic of leads, but he does perfectly fine in his role (feeling very much like the old-fashioned kind of wholesome lead he is supposed to be). Arkin is fun, Connelly radiates, and Timothy Dalton might just be the most fun that he has ever been in a non-comedy film. Seriously, almost every moment featuring Dalton's character is a delight.
You also have some wonderful production design, it's just a shame that they somehow didn't lean in even further with the retro style, and you get a rousing score by Howard Shore. There's also some nice swashbuckling, some enjoyable aerial stunt work, Paul Sorvino and Terry O'Quinn having fun in supporting roles, and an excerpt from a fake film that I really wish we had seen become a reality; The Laughing Bandit.
Johnston may show restraint throughout much of the film, certainly in comparison to the approach of some other directors, but he makes the most of the set-pieces to throw some great action on the screen, and make things as bombastic as they can be. It's an instinct that serves him well, and served him equally well when he was employed to helm the excellent Captain America: The First Avenger almost two decades later.
Get this Bluray, which plays here on UK players as well as on American players (from my experience). Sadly lacking in extras though.