'Rocketeer' blasts off with wit, special effects

June 21, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Able to leap tall bullets at a single bound, faster than a speeding building, more powerful than someone doing the locomotion, and a lot more fun than all of them, "The Rocketeer" is a romp through the deco style and the heroic postures of the late '30s,which ought to please both literaly minded kids and ironic parents.(If you are an ironic kid or a literal-minded parent,you ought to stay away.)

The genius of the movie is how it operates with a great deal of brio on two levels: It is both a sterling aviation adventure about a boy who can fly and an amusing farrago of myths set in the popular culture of the times.

It traffics in some salubrious gossip: Was Errol Flynn a Nazi spy? Why did the Hindenburg really blow up? Was Howard Hughes ever normal? Did G-men sneer when they pulled the trigger on their tommy guns? The answers to all these are contained in "The Rocketeer."

Directed by the Joe Johnston who made lots of people rich in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," the movie is anything but shrunken. It's a broadly conceived comic book, full of bold primary colors, state-of-the-art special effects, a breakneck pace and great plotting inventions. The only thing missing is stars and be honest: Would you feel better spending all that money to watch someone like Dustin Hoffman or Warren Beatty fly through the air, or is Bill Campbell good enough?

Actually, he's more than good enough. Campbell is probably too square-headed and movie-star-handsome to become a '90s movie star, but as long as they make mock-'30s pastiches, he'll stay gainfully employed. He's not merely matinee idol good-looking, but his eyes gleam with a bit of intelligence. And he manages to personify that which has all but vanished from the culture: The age when aviation encompassed and inspired the imagination, when planes and the boys who flew them were the great heroes. In fact, love of flight and flying machines is one of "The Rocketeer's" deepest pleasures.

Campbell plays Cliff Secord, a racing pilot gearing up for the Nationals in 1939. His test flight is interrupted by Feds chasing a gangster, and the upshot of the violent encounter is that Cliff's racer -- a snub-nosed piston job that could be a proto-Thunderbolt P-47 -- is totaled but he recovers what the gangster had stolen and what every boy wants: a rocket backpack swiped from Howard Hughes' labs.

It turns out that the gangsters were working for a suave, swashbuckling Hollywood star named Nigel Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, camping it up in the sin-like-Flynn role) who is in turn working for the boys who want the whole world to be blue-eyed, blond-haired goose-steppers. They envision the rocket pack as the key to the blitzkriegs of the future.

The plot is both many splendored and multitentacled, and it manages to bring Cliff, through the medium of his spunky starlet girlfriend (played by Jennifer Connelly, who's an extra in a movie verily like "The Adventures of Robin Hood"), into the world of late '30s Hollywood, where Flynn ruled like a king.

The movie even pauses to introduce a villain in the visage of Rondo Hatton, the late '30s star who suffered from bone deformity and was billed as "the world's ugliest man." The real Hatton was said to be a gentle, dignified man; this is one stroke that leaves me a bit uneasy.

Johnston, as he evinced in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," is at his best when he's slinging astounding visions across the screen. "The Rocketeer" is full of them -- you will believe a man can fly with a souped-up vacuum on his back. But what's more important is that the movie itself flies.

'The Rocketeer'

Starring Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly.

Directed by Joe Johnston.

Released by Disney.

Rated PG.


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