In 1938 Los Angeles, California, a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes is stolen from his factory by a mobster duo working for crime boss Eddie Valentine. The driver of the getaway car, chased by FBI agents into a hangar, hides the rocket in an aging biplane and deceives the FBI agents with a vacuum cleaner he finds in the hangar. The driver is injured in the shoot-out, arrested and removed in an ambulance; the FBI agents find the ruined vacuum in the burned-out car. They believe the ruined device is the actual rocket and telephone Hughes, who decides its destruction is for the best, and burns its blueprints. Meanwhile, struggling stunt pilot Cliff Secord and mechanic A. “Peevy” Peabody find the mysterious rocket inside the biplane. Cliff experiments with it but Peevy persuades him to leave the rocket alone until he can understand its design and fine-tune it. Meanwhile, Valentine argues with movie star Neville Sinclair, who hired his gang to obtain the rocket from Hughes. Sinclair negotiates a new deal and dispatches the mobsters to search for the missing device. However, Sinclair secretly sends his right-hand man, the monstrous Lothar, to kill the injured mobster in police custody.
Shortly afterwards, at an airshow, Cliff uses the rocket (with Peevy’s newly-designed, face-hiding helmet) to heroically rescue his elderly friend Malcolm piloting a malfunctioned aircraft. Having been seen by the audience, a media sensation ensues and Cliff, as the anonymous hero, is dubbed “the Rocketeer”. However, Cliff and his aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake, begin to have relationship issues after Cliff visits her on-set of a film and inadvertently causes an accident in which a lead actor is mysteriously injured. Jenny is fired over Cliff’s accident; however, Sinclair, who is portraying the lead role of the production, overhears Cliff’s conversation with Jenny. After Cliff leaves, Sinclair makes up to Jenny and gets a dinner date with her at the famed South Seas Club. Sinclair then sends Lothar to search the airfield for Cliff.
That evening FBI agents find Bigelow dead, while Cliff consults with Peevy in their shared home. Lothar attacks and seizes detailed rocketpack schematics drawn up by Peabody, but is interrupted when the FBI arrives. Cliff and Peevy escape with the rocket, and Lothar also escapes as the house is destroyed by gunfire. Cliff and Peevy arrive at the local diner but are trapped by a team of mobsters who are searching for Cliff, but don’t recognize him. Overhearing them consult with Valentine over the diner’s phone, Cliff learns of Jenny’s date with Sinclair and the latter’s involvement with the crime. Cliff decides to confront Sinclair and Peabody provisionally patches the rocket’s sudden leaking fuel tank with Cliff’s chewing gum. Cliff infiltrates the South Seas Club but is nearly trapped by Valentine’s gang, and in the ensuing melée, Jenny is kidnapped by Sinclair.
Sinclair tries to seduce Jenny at his villa, but she knocks him out and, trying to escape, finds that he is a Nazi spy. Sinclair recaptures her with Lothar’s aid and leaves a message for Cliff; bring the rocketpack to the Griffith Observatory that very night or Jenny dies. Cliff hides the rocket just before he is arrested by the FBI, who take him to Hughes. Hughes reveals that the rocket was a prototype similar to one Nazi scientists were unsuccessfully developing to invade the United States. The FBI agents mention that they are tracking a Nazi spy in Hollywood, whom Cliff obviously realizes to be Sinclair. When Hughes demands the return of the rocket, Cliff explains that he needs it to rescue Jenny and, seizing a large wooden model of the “Spruce Goose” flying boat, glides out of Hughes’ hangar headquarters.
Recostumed as the Rocketeer, Cliff flies to the rendezvous where Sinclair, Lothar and the Valentine gang are waiting. When Sinclair demands the rocket, Cliff divulges to the gang that the actor is a Nazi spy. Valentine is a career criminal but draws the line at treason; he turns on Sinclair. Sinclair unexpectedly summons Nazi SA commandos hidden nearby and the gang are held at gunpoint as a Nazi Zeppelin touring America in a “gesture of friendship” is shown to be secretly assisting the mission, and appears overhead. A dispute ensues between the Nazis and the arrival of FBI agents, but Sinclair and Lothar escape with Jenny aboard the zeppelin. The climax ensues with Cliff and Jenny being rescued by Howard and Peevy in an autogyro. Sinclair takes the rocket, but not before Cliff thumbs off the chewing gum patch. Sinclair is unaware of the device’s oil combust, and he dies crashing down upon the last four giant letters of the “Hollywoodland” sign. Lothar is engulfed in flames as the zeppelin explodes.
Some time afterwards, Hughes presents Secord with a brand-new Gee Bee racing plane. As he drives away, Jenny presents Peabody with the rocket schematics she found in Sinclair’s villa. Peabody decides that with some modifications, he can build an even better one.
This was one of my favorite films growing up, and may very well be the reason I love the era of the 30s and 40s so much. Many years later, I still love it, and have gained a larger respect for the time period it is set in as well as the technical aspects of the film.
Billy Campbell was an unknown when he was cast. For the most part he still is, but it is hard to believe that he eventually went from this to playing Jordan Collier in The 4400.There are some moments when Campbell seems a bit out of place, but for the most part he does a really good job.
Jennifer Connelly is in one of her most attractive roles here. As a matter of fact, and this may be due to the period clothing, she looks like a dark haired Scarlett Johnasson in places. Unfortunately, she doesn’t ignite the screen with her acting. she comes across to me as if she’s just reading the lines. There is no connection there.
Timothy Dalton may best be known for being one of the many men chosen to pay James Bond, but he can also play quite the conniving villain. Maybe it has something to do with the mustache, but he really makes you believe.
The effects here are state of the art for 1991. The flying scenes aren’t as brethtaking as in the Superman films, but that is partially because Cliff doesn’t really fly up in the clouds very often. I like how they address the fact that the helmet looks rather stupid. I think everyone is in agreement on that, but it’s part of the character, and you can’t just go around messing with stuff like that, especially with older comic heroes like this. The climactic scene on board the zeppelin is the kind you expect from those good old action films from yesteryear.
Not many people now about the Rocketeer, myself including, outside of this film, but if superhero films have taught us anything, its that watching these films can arouse our intrigue in characters and encourage us to do some research and learn more about the characters. I know that’s what I’ve done. This isa great action/adventure film, especially for those like me that love films set in the 30s and 40s. The acting isn’t that great, but the effect, if you take into account that this was made in 1991 are spectacular. It is a shame this didn’t do better at the box office. I believe there could have been a slew of sequels. Hopefully you’ll check it out and see if you agree with me.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars