Before Captain America, Joe Johnston Made This Flawed But Fun Hero Movie


Director Joe Johnston may now be known for his directorial work Captain America: The First Avenger but this film was not his first foray into the world of superheroes. In 1991, Johnston made The Rocket, a tribute to the aesthetics of the 1930s and early science fiction films of that era. The film is little known now but features special effects footage created by Industrial Light and Magic, jet packs and Howard Hughes.

Although well received by critics and audiences, The Rocket did not do well at the box office, grossing only $46 million against the film’s $35 million budget. Sequel plans were scrapped, but small toy lines went ahead as planned, and young adult novels were released to coincide with the film. In 2019, a television series based on the film aired on Disney Junior, featuring Billy Campbell reprising his lead role as Cliff Secord from the original. Echoing the original film, the show was well received but canceled after one season. Amazingly, a sequel is now on the way and is being produced by David Oyelowo and his wife, which is set to land on Disney Plus and titled Return of the Rocketeer. Now that the property is back in the spotlight, it’s time to re-examine the original, its flaws and all.


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Starring Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot who stumbles upon a prototype jetpack and inadvertently finds himself trapped in the middle of the FBI and actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) as the two sides race to find the rocket first. Cliff and his engineer friend Peevy (Alan Arkin) are struggling for money, with their aircraft hangar space in jeopardy due to bills piling up and their latest plane crashing and burning on the airfield. Meanwhile, Cliff’s relationship with his burgeoning actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connolly) is on the rocks as he hides the accident from her and downplays his career. The movie Jenny happens to have an additional role in which stars Sinclair, who overhears Cliff telling her about the engine he can attach to himself to fly. Naturally, Sinclair moves on an upset Jenny to get the information he wants on the whereabouts of the rocket.


When one of his friends gets into trouble in the sky, Cliff blows his cover by taking on the role of The Rocketeer, showing the world the jetpack as he rushes to save his friend. Soon everyone is looking for him, the FBI, the Mafia and Neville Sinclair. Another adversary looking for Billy is a giant man called Lothar, who is enlisted by Sinclair to find him. This man is covered in heavy prosthetic makeup to give him a grotesque appearance. As a result, his face cannot move and the few lines he has are ADR and quite poorly done. As with any good film set in the late 1930s, there are also Nazis to deal with but their presence is not known until the final third of the film.

There’s a lot to like The Rocket. Aesthetics alone is a big driver. The 1930s costumes and sets are accented with the addition of Cliff’s helmet and the jetpack itself, perfect examples of how the 30s envisioned the future. The characters and storyline are well developed. Cliff Secord is effortlessly likable, Jennifer Connolly adds a vulnerability to Jenny that’s endearing, and Timothy Dalton excels at turning Sinclair into a sleazy, manipulative jerk. The action sequences hold up and remain thrilling and engaging today. The soundtrack also climbs in all the right places and is perfectly epic for such an old-fashioned adventure.

As for the bad, it is minimal although noticeable. As mentioned earlier, Lothar looks terrible and totally out of place in the film. Nowhere else in the film are there any noticeable makeup effects, and the heavy rubber mask is hugely distracting. The story, while engaging, is also a little heavy on patriotism and romance. There’s also a hilarious moment near the start of the movie where Billy is confronted by the FBI for the first time and while one of them lays down on him the other starts talking along with his lines. It’s subtle but it’s entertaining.

Globally, The Rocket is a charming flight of nostalgia that, despite being a product of its time, continues to entertain. With a sequel in the works, it will be interesting to see how the mythology of The Rocket is continued and updated for a new audience. Early reports suggest it will focus on a former Tuskegee Airman who inherits The Rocketeer’s jetpack and coat. While it’s always great to see a new take on a character, it’s a shame there wasn’t more to see of Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord, a kind-hearted pilot who saved the world just trying to save his daughter.

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