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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Rocketeer

December 30th, 2011

The Rocketeer - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

The Rocketeer came out in theaters 20 years ago. It was an expensive film for its day costing $42 million to make. By comparison, Terminator 2: Judgment Day had just broken the record for most expensive film at $100 million, breaking the record set just the year before by Die Hard 2. So $42 million in 1991 is like $100 million to $125 million today. The studio was obviously planning on building a franchise. Unfortunately, the film only pulled in $46 million domestically and less than half that internationally. Now that 20 years have passed, has the film aged well and is it worth (re)discovering? Or did it fail to find an audience originally for a reason?

The Movie

The film begins in 1938 with Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot, trying out a new plane built by his mechanic, A. "Peevy" Peabody, for the national air race. Peevy is more than a little concerned Cliff isn't taking the plane seriously. It's highly maneuverable, but as a result, it is also very temperamental. Its maiden flight goes poorly, but it's not Cliff's fault. He's shot down, by the mafia. The mafiosi were being chased by the feds, Cliff saw the chase and flew low to check it out and that's when he was shot at. Shortly afterwards, the mafia guy gets away from the feds, at least for a little while. Long enough to hide the whatever they stole in Cliff and Peevy's hanger, before crashing his car into Cliff's plane. (Cliff was trying for an emergency landing.) In the ensuing chaos, the car crashes into a fuel truck and the feds think the prototype was destroyed.

So what was this prototype? It seems two mafiosi had stolen a prototype rocket pack, the X3, from Howard Hughs and were trying to get it to their boss, Eddie Valentine. Eddie Valentine was working for the movie star Neville Sinclair, who happens to be a Nazi collaborator and who wanted to turn it into a weapon for Germany. The U.S. military was also trying to turn it into a weapon, but now that Howard Hughs thinks it was destroyed, he's happy to keep it that way. He didn't want to design a weapon and the rocket pack was simply too dangerous for anyone to fly.

Well, anyone but Cliff Secord, that is. After Cliff discovers the rocket pack, he immediately wants to start flying it, thinking it would be a great way to earn money. (If people would pay money to see him fly stunts in a plane, they would pay a lot more to see him fly in a rocket pack.) Peevy is less enthusiastic, especially after initial unmanned and unplanned tests show how dangerous it can be. Not to mention the fact that the Feds were looking for it. But Cliff convinces him that a few performances will be enough to get the cash needed to be back in the nationals.

In the meantime, Cliff has a date with his girlfriend, Jenny Blake. Jenny is an actress, at least she's trying to become an actress. She rarely gets any speaking parts, but she's up for a part with a single line, in a Neville Sinclair film. Their date also goes poorly; not crash landing poorly, but poorly nonetheless. She's upset that he didn't tell her about the plane crash. He's upset that her acting career, such that it is, is going to take her places he can't. (Although her career takes a hit when he visits her on set and accidentally gets her fired.)

After that incident, Cliff tries to tell Jenny about the rocket pack, something Neville overhears, and Neville sends Eddie and his men to retrieve it. They arrive to search the airfield on the day of the big race, and while Cliff can take part in the race, he makes an appearance as The Rocketeer when he saves a friend of his after his plane malfunctions midair. However, while the press love The Rocketeer, the FBI, the Mafia, and Neville's personal henchman, Lothar, all descend on him. Cliff manages to stay ahead of them for a while, but after Neville kidnaps Jenny, he's got to play the hero one more time.

The Rocketeer is obviously an homage to the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s. If you like those films, then you will likely enjoy this film. It has a great retro feel to it, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of art design. The is a lot of good acting in the movie and some of the set pieces have plenty of action involved. However, there are a few parts of the movie that really fail to click. Firstly, it's an Origin Story film, and these films tend to have the shared problems, i.e. the movie spends too much time on how the regular guy becomes the hero that we don't see enough heroics. Secondly, it feels very empty. It might be entertaining, but you won't remember a lot of it the next day, and I think this will hurt the film's replay value. Finally, it was a special effects laden movie, which was a selling point when it first came out. However, these cutting edge special effects have not aged well. In fact, high definition is not doing the special effects any favors here.

Overall I think it is a fun movie to watch and one that is worth checking out if you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it in a while. However, it doesn't have the replay value that makes purchasing necessary. For that it will rely on the extras.

The Extras

There are no extras on the Blu-ray. That's disappointing. The Blu-ray cover says, "20th Anniversary Edition", but there are zero extras. (I'm not counting the trailer as a special feature.) The technical presentation is solid, with a few caveats. The film was meant to replicate the look of serials from the Golden Age of movies, so some shots are intentionally soft and the colors tilt a little to the warmer side of things. Also, like I mentioned, some of the special effects stand out, and not in a good way. The audio also has some issues related to its age. The dialogue is clear, the score comes from all sides, there are a few directional effects, etc. however, it's not as immersive as it could be. It certainly doesn't compare to super hero action films made today.

The Verdict

The Rocketeer is a fun movie, but not a substantial movie. It looks and sounds good on Blu-ray, but it hasn't aged terribly well over the past 20 years. Finally, it is a featureless disc. It adds up to a solid rental, but no more.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Rocketeer