The Rocketeer

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Disney, widescreen 2.35:1, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], French Digital Stereo, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 15 chapters, Theatrical Trailer, rated PG, 108 min., $29.99, street date 8/17/99.

Studio Line

Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino.

The discovery of a top-secret jetpack hurls test pilot Cliff Secord into a daring adventure of mystery, suspense and intrigue! Cliff encounters as assortment of ruthless villains, led by a Hollywood screen star who's a secret Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton). With the help of his actress girlfriend, the young pilot battles enormous odds to defeat his foes, who are anxious to use the device in an evil plan to rule the world! The dangerous misson transforms the ordinary young man into an extraordinary hero!

Picture/Sound/Extras (D+/B/D-)

After Batman cleaned up at the box office in 1989, Hollywood rushed to knock out more films about superheroes. Some were good, some were bad, but none remotely approached the success seen by the Caped Crusader.

Disney's first attempt to get some of those Bat-dollars occurred in 1990 with the much-ballyhooed release of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. While not a complete rip-off of Batman, Beatty clearly had taken in quite a few screenings of that hit and the similarities were strong. Not so at the box office, though, as DT made a respectable amount of money but nothing special.

Disney took another approach the following year with The Rocketeer. This film offered a lighter, breezier approach to the superhero epic and tried harder to recapture the spirit of comics from the medium's 1940s "Golden Age".

In that, it succeeded, but it didn't make a dent at the box office. $46 million for a big-time summer release is pretty weak, and The Rocketeer died a pretty quick theatrical death.

All that is too bad, for The Rocketeer really is a fun little movie. It provides a very nice balance of thrills, romance and laughs and wraps it up in a spiffy package that makes for an entertaining experience.

Director Joe Johnston originally made his name in Hollywood in the visual field, with films such as Star Wars to his credit. He retains that eye for visual flair and it works well in Rocketeer; he does a good job of creating a stylized version of 1930s-era California and he generally gives the film an effectively dashing look. As a director, he can be guilty of letting the story plod along at times, but for the most part The Rocketeer cruises at a snappy pace.

As our lead characters, Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly are decent but unspectacular. Both lack range and depth, but Campbell nicely conveys the "gee-whiz" heroism of his character, and Connelly always makes for a lovely presence. Both characters are pretty shallow - Connelly's Jenny seems especially poorly-developed - but the actors make them likable.

One big boost for The Rocketeer comes from its terrific supporting cast. After playing James Bond a couple of times, Timothy Dalton takes on an equally dashing but much more sinister character in Errol Flynn clone Neville Sinclair. Dalton is wonderful in the part, as he chews the scenery throughout the film; he makes Sinclair a suitably larger-than-life presence.

Also excellent - as usual - is Alan Arkin, who plays Peevy, the brains behind Cliff "The Rocketeer" Secord's little operation. Arkin always demonstrates a grounded quality that makes his characters work, and Peevy is no exception. He also gets some of the script's best lines, which he delivers with characteristic dryness.

The Rocketeer isn't a classic, but it doesn't aspire to be. All it purports to offer is a fun and escapist piece of entertainment, and it delivers on all counts.

The Rocketeer appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Disney have taken a lot of abuse for their DVDs, some deserved, some not. In this case, it's deserved; while not a complete loss, The Rocketeer makes for a pretty ugly DVD.

Sharpness is a consistent issue. At times it looks good, but at others it can seem quite soft; much of the movie appears murky and hazy. Oddly, edge enhancement is also a frequent problem, with a great deal of edginess and moiré effects on display; some of the sharpness levels are jacked so high that eyeballs shimmer!

Print flaws are not horrendous but they seem more evident than they should for such a recent film. Speckles are the main culprit, as they pop up pretty regularly. A few scratches appear as well, and I noticed light grain at times.

Colors are decent but pretty bland. The film displays an overall brownish tone that doesn't allow for much brightness, so while the hues looked fairly accurate, they seemed somewhat flat due to this factor. Black levels tend to be acceptable but they could lean toward a washed-out, drab appearance as well, and shadow detail suffered a bit due to this. I could stand to watch The Rocketeer, but it was a very disappointing experience.

Much better is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Disney have been guilty of the old bait and switch in regard to some of their DVD packaging; a number of discs advertise features that aren't there. The Rocketeer also offers a mistaken listing on its case, but for once the error favors us. The box indicates that the movie appears just in Dolby Surround, but it indeed offers a full Dolby Digital 5.1.

The Rocketeer appeared before the advent of DD and DTS at the time when 5.1 mixes became standard. As such, it's more modest than we'd expect of a similar movie made today, but it's still a pretty good mix. The forward soundstage is nicely broad and well-defined, with a lot of audio that emanates from the side channels and some excellent panning as well. The rears also seem pretty active; they generally reinforce the music and effects, but a few split surround effects also pop up back there and the surrounds add a lot of life to the mix.

Audio quality seems good but unspectacular. Dialogue sounds reasonably natural and clear, with no intelligibility problems. Music appears bright and vivid, though it could use some more bass. Effects can be a bit thin and bland, however; gun shots lack heft, and the rocket blasts tend to be a bit distorted. It's still a relatively strong track and one that helps balance the poor quality of the picture.

Anyone looking for a special edition will be disappointed with this DVD. We get the film's theatrical trailer and that's it. Boo!

I liked The Rocketeer. It's a fun movie that neatly captures the spirit of superheroes from the Golden Age of comic books. Unfortunately, its release on DVD leaves an awful lot to be desired. The film's audio sounds pretty good, but the DVD almost completely lacks extras and the picture frequently looks quite bad. I'd like to recommend The Rocketeer but the poor quality of this DVD makes that impossible.

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