02 October 2021 345 Views

#CrimeoftheScene: ROCKETEER (1991)

by James Murphy

‘But I’m 100% American!’

It will probably not have escaped your notice that ROCKETEER (as opposed to ‘The Rocketeer’?) is being remade / retooled/rebooted for DISNEY PLUS. And yes, there will be a black actor in the lead. So what? Move along. The Return of the Rocketeer will be produced by David and Jessica Oyelowo. BRING IT ON!! 

It actually makes sense in THAT example to race swap because it adds to the idea of an underdog rising above prejudice via the metaphorical rocket and it also injects the dormant IP with new blood. Superman does not need that. Rocketeer by contrast, can indeed benefit from such (re)definition. Because it simply did not ‘work’ , first time around. Not quite, anyway. 

The 1991 film version has much to recommend it. Timothy Dalton is an excellent villain (though he should have been making his third Bond film back then, and would have, but for legal wrangles between studios etc). He also arranged the flowers on set. 😉

There is a playful innocence to the piece. Nice score. Decent visuals from director, Joe Johnston. Good, solid story set up and execution. Alan Arkin great as ever on supporting character duties. Terry O’Quinn should have had his own Howard Hughes movie spin-off: he is that good here in a cameo.

But the leading man, however good he might be elsewhere (Billy Campbell) is miscast, to the extent that one cannot quite invest in his winning the lovely girl (Jennifer Connelly). And the generic Nazi wannabe Raiders/Indiana Jones trope simply falls flat in this movie.

One scene sums up both the untapped strengths and undermining weaknesses cited. Towards the end, a mobster called Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) switches sides from helping Dalton’s baddie to aiding the titular ‘Rocketeer’. Lots of ‘go get ’em, kid‘ etc.

And worst of all: a line in which Valentine mentions that though he is a bad guy, he is ‘100 per cent American’ and will not work with a Nazi. Come on. A baddie is a baddie. The hero of the movie is unlikely to have inspired this mobster to awaken his conscience and become a patriotic ally. So the switch is completely unbelievable.

 

It thereby sums up the fate of the film. People puzzle over why it failed to ‘fly’ at the box office. The reason is simple: this was a kind of ersatz Indiana Jones. SOME of the elements that worked and made one series a success do not in themselves gel together to make a comparable product.

And if the hero cannot rouse the audience? Then he is highly unlikely to awaken the conscience of a mobster who is in their way, possibly /arguably just as deadly as the main antagonist Nazi spy?

Now, I love Paul Sorvino in the right role. And I am not suggesting that a Mafia boss would willingly abet an ideological evil like Nazism.

But bad guys are bad guys and unless you have a clear utility to their character turn or motivation, then you are relying on audience agreement with your own narrative presumptions. Which, in a nutshell, is why ROCKETEER mark 1 from 1991 did not quite take of. But also why, in this particular case, a more pertinent race swap might just add that additional edge of tension, motivation and a truly rousing end scene as hero saves the day from nasty Nazis AND their mobster accomplices?

CASE LEFT OPEN.

JUDGEMENT DEFERRED UNTIL REBOOT IS ‘OUT’. 

 



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