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Film: The Rocketeer

A 1991 Disney note  live-action film, adapted from Dave Stevens' series of comic books, The Rocketeer follows the adventures of its titular hero: stunt pilot Cliff Secord, who uses a serendipitously found experimental rocket pack to fight crime in 1938 Los Angeles.

It was nominated for a Hugo in 1992, but lost to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Although never reaching the same heights of popularity of other comic book films (including its contemporaries), this movie's fandom is still quite strong today, and the film has aged rather well. Its director Joe Johnston would later helm the vastly more succesful comic book film Captain America: The First Avenger.

On another note entirely, its primary musical theme by James Horner, Take Off, is practically a movie trailer standard.

Provides examples of:

  • Accent Relapse: Neville Sinclair speaks perfect English during the whole movie — until he is exposed as a Nazi spy, after which he reverts to speaking in a German accent.
  • Ace Pilot: played straight with Cliff, a stunt pilot; subverted with Malcolm, allegedly a World War One ace, but now in his dotage.
  • Action Survivor: Cliff.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the comics, Peevy was quite older. Oddly, movie Peevy looks like how Malcolm (the pilot Cliff saves) looked in the comic, while movie Malcolm is elderly like comic Peevy.
  • Adaptational Badass: Cliff Secord between the comic book (in which he was assisted by other pulp heroes) and the movie (which he actually saved other people, mostly by himself).
  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie is very true to the tone and style of the original comic, although for obvious reasons, Dave Stevens' fanservice drawings of women in skimpy clothing didn't quite make the cut.
  • All Part of the Show: Said word for word when the Rocketeer first appears, and saves bumbling pilot Malcolm from fiery death. However, the airfield owner saying that has a hard time keeping up that line as the crashing plane destroys another of his fuel trucks.
  • Alternate History / Alternate Universe: But only slightly so. Everything's mostly the same as it was in our 1938, except Howard Hughes has invented a jetpack, the Germans still use zeppelins, and the Hollywoodland sign ends up losing the "-land" eleven years early.
    • The later parts of the movies also hint of World War II starting off differently and the rocket's blueprints technically out in the open.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Believe it or not, ridiculously-shaped buildings like the Bulldog Cafe really did exist; they were something of a fad in midcentury Los Angeles. Perhaps the most famous is the Brown Derby restaurant, a stars' hangout in old-time Hollywood and the place where the Cobb salad was invented. Since they were built for novelty, not durability, most are gone—but a handful survive, most notably Randy's Donuts of Inglewood, which is shaped like a giant donut.
  • Are We Getting This?: At the airshow. The cameraman may not know what it is, but he is getting it.
  • Ascended Fangirl / Broken Pedestal: Jenny is a huge fan of Neville Sinclair until she sees he's a creep. And a Nazi spy.
  • Bad Bad Acting: "O my sweet prince, that I may drink of your lips as deeply!" The second take was better...
  • Behind the Black: Almost literally, as the Luxembourg suddenly looms out of the night from behind the Griffith Observatory.
  • Be My Valentine: "100% American" Eddie Valentine, played with cuddly menace by Paul Sorvino.
    • Lampshaded by Sinclair, after they each turn their back on the other, when he is about to leave with Jenny and taunts, "Goodbye, Eddie. Happy Valentine's Day." This is followed by the arrival of...
  • Big Damn Heroes: Cliff and the gangsters are all held at gunpoint by Nazi paratroopers, about to be mowed down at Sinclair's orders, as he leaves with Jenny as his hostage. Suddenly, headlights light up and armed men appear with machine guns while their leader roars, "This is the FBI! Throw down your guns!"
    • Then, later on, Howard Hughes and Peevy show up in an autogyro and rescue Cliff and Jenny from the exploding zeppelin.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The German is left untranslated, though they got one bit of German wrong. At one point, the Nazi G-Man says "Ich habe meine Bestellung", which means "I have my orders", but "Bestellung" actually refers to the type of orders you'd give a waiter. He should've said "Befehle".
  • Bookcase Passage: In Neville Sinclair's mansion.
  • Bruce Wayne Held Hostage: Valentine's mooks keep the airshow pilots—Cliff included—hostage at the cafe.
  • The Brute: Lothar, who is an Expy of The Brute Man himself, Rondo Hatton.
  • Burning the Flag: A Nazi propaganda film which shows their rocket soldiers attacking America has a burning American flag falling to the ground as the Nazi banner rises in its place.
    • Gets an Ironic Echo when the swastika emblazoned on the Luxembourg's tailfin is consumed by flames.
  • The Cameo: Tiny Ron as one of the men who see Cliff fly by before crashing.
  • The Casanova: Subverted; Neville tries to seduce Jenny, but his chat-up lines are all from his own movies which Jenny (as an avid fan) knows off by heart.
    • The Bookcase Passage to Neville's Nazi communications room was even opened by a book called "The Conquests of Casanova".
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Nazi airship is briefly mentioned in a newsreel the characters watch at the opening of the film. You've probably forgotten all about it until it suddenly shows up overhead at the climax.
    • The bullet hole in the rocket pack.
    • Cliff's habit of chewing gum, which saves his life covering the bullet hole on the rocket pack and dooms Neville Sinclair's when Cliff slides it off. So would this be Chekhov's gum?
  • Civvie Spandex: The Rocketeer's "costume" is actually fairly mundane pilot garb for the 1930's. The only truly remarkable thing about it is the helmet and the jetpack.
  • Climbing Climax: The climax takes place on Cliff having to mount a zeppelin.
  • Contrived Clumsiness: Cliff Secord does this when he's at the South Seas Club, where his girlfriend Jenny is with Neville Sinclair, who's looking for the rocketpack. He "accidentally" spills some champagne on Jenny just before she tells Neville about him and how he's got the rocketpack.
  • Cool Airship: The Luxembourg.
  • Cool Helmet: The Rocketeer's with a big dorsal fin to enable him to steer.
  • Cool Old Guy: Peevy.
  • Cool Plane: Actual flying Gee Bee racer replicas.
  • Creator Cameo: Blink and you'll miss him, but that's Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens playing the test pilot in the German film Howard Hughes shows Cliff.
  • Dance of Romance: Neville Sinclair attempts to invoke this in his seduction of Jenny at the South Seas Club. It doesn't stick.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Peevy. Cliff has his moments, too.
  • Death from Above: The airship.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Neville Sinclair.
  • Diesel Punk: The art direction has a lovely Deco Punk look.
  • Dirty Coward: Neville Sinclair.
  • Disney Villain Death: A variation: Neville Sinclair voluntarily flies out of the zeppelin with the rocketpack, but its fuel leak causes it to burst into a massive fireball, causing Neville to crash into the Hollywoodland sign and explode spectacularly.
  • Disposable Pilot: As Neville Sinclair is making his escape aboard a Nazi zeppelin, the captain tells Sinclair that their pilot is the best in Germany, when Lothar's unconscious body knocks the pilot out of the zeppelin.
  • Distressed Damsel: Subverted, somewhat, as Jenny does participate in her own rescue.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!
  • Enemy Mine: During a gunfight in the climax, Valentine finds himself fighting the Nazis alongside the FBI agents. They glance at each other, and then resume firing.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Eddie Valentine quits working for Sinclair after finding out he's a Nazi.
    • Almost Truth in Television as a lot of Real Life American gangsters during that era weren't too thrilled with fascism. In fact, gangsters were the police forces' biggest allies in weeding out Nazi supporters. This is due to Mussolini persecuting the Sicilian Families back in the Old Country. And Hitler wasn't a favorite of the Jewish mobsters either.
    • Even before The Reveal, Valentine is quite resentful of him:
    Sinclair: Valentine, we're going to do what I think is necessary.
    Valentine: And that includes breaking one of my men in half, huh? The next time you go after one of my men, I'll kill ya.
    Sinclair: Don't threaten me, Eddie. Just do your job.
    Valentine: Hey, Sinclair? (lights cigar) If the Feds take me, I'm taking you with me. I'm gonna tell them everything.
    Sinclair: Who do you think they'll believe? A cheap crook, or the number three box-office star in America?
    (as Sinclair leaves, Valentine throws his cigar at the door in disgust)
    Valentine: Number three jerk!
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Sinclair hears Cliff talking to Jenny about the rocketpack on the set of his latest movie.
  • Expy: Lothar is Rondo Hatton, while Neville Sinclair is Errol Flynn, who was (wrongly) accused of being a Nazi spy.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!
  • Fanservice: Jennifer Connelly, as she puts on a stocking; her cleavage in the latter parts of the movie. Or basically, just Jennifer Connelly.
  • Floating Head Syndrome: The cover used for home video releases after executives theorized that the art deco poster shown above looked too old-fashioned for most moviegoers.
  • Genre Throwback: To the adventure serials of the 1930s (see also: Two-Fisted Tales).
  • Giant Mook: Lothar.
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: At the South Seas Club.
  • Go Seduce My Archnemesis
  • Greasy Spoon: The Bulldog Cafe.
  • Groin Attack:
    • Cliff tries this against Lothar aboard the zeppelin, though it only annoys Lothar, and worse, Cliff gets hurt trying it.
    • Jenny gives a kick in the groin towards the aviator of the zeppelin near the end of the movie, though her white dress obscures the kick itself.
  • Handwave: The reason the jetpack's operator's legs don't get fried to a crisp by the exhaust is that it's a "cool" propulsion powered by alcohol.
  • Hello Again Officer: Cliff keeps running into the same three feds...
  • Historical-Domain Character: Howard Hughes. Clark Gable and W.C. Fields also appear at the South Seas Club.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • Cliff escapes from Howard Hughes by grabbing a (large) model plane and jumping off a balcony, gliding to safety. The plane is a model of the "Spruce Goose", and Hughes comments, "The son-of-a-bitch will fly."
    • Los Angeles' famous "Hollywood" sign used to read "Hollywoodland". Neville Sinclair makes a dramatic exit from the burning airship (see So Long, Suckers!, below), right after he smirks "I'll miss Hollywood..." He then crashes into the last four letters of the sign, obliterating them. (In reality, the "-land" was removed in 1949, to reduce maintenance costs.)
    • The newsreel shows that the first place to be visited by the German zeppelin is Lakehurst, New Jersey—though that could also be showing their work, since Lakehurst was one of a handful of places in the country with airship landing facilities.
    • Errol Flynn was suspected of being a Nazi spy. Unlike his Expy, he wasn't.
  • How Do I Shot Web?: In his first flight, Cliff has trouble with the rocketpack.
  • I Have Your Girl / Come Alone: Cliff is summoned to the Griffith Park Observatory. Hey, it was 1938; these tropes were NEW!
  • Insult Backfire: "Where's your stuntman now, Sinclair?" *PUNCH!* "I do my own stunts."
  • Jet Pack: The rocket everyone is after.
  • Kitchen Chase: Cliff Secord is chased by Lothar and other gangsters through the kitchen of the South Seas Club. Justified as Cliff was disguised as a waiter.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Done literally. When Lothar breaks into their house, Peevy hides the rocket by setting it on a corner table with a lampshade over it. Watch it here.
  • Lethally Expensive: When Howard Hughes shows Cliff the Nazi propaganda film, he says "Keep watching, kid. It cost a man's life to get this out of Germany."
  • Lighter and Softer: A slight case — in the comic, Cliff's girlfriend is a nude model named "Betty" after pin-up icon Bettie Page; in the movie she's Jenny, who works as a film extra.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: After such false starts as "Rocketman" and "Rocketboy", Bigelow coins "Rocketeer" after seeing the word "Pioneer".
  • Look Ma, No Plane!
  • Made of Iron: Lothar
  • Male Gaze: When Jenny is introduced to famed comedian W.C. Fields, the camera shows us exactly why he is "Charmed. Doubly charmed" to meet her.
  • Match Cut: Hills to a close-up of bedsheets; a flaming airship to a bunch of oranges.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Averted—Peevy makes it to the end.
  • Middle Management Mook: Eddie Valentine.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Theft of prototype rocket-pack → Nazi aerial invasion of the world.
  • Mook-Face Turn: Eddie Valentine, because working for a Nazi is not what he signed on for.
  • Mr. Fixit: Peevy
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jennifer Connelly at her peak. Well, as much as a 21-year-old can peak.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: When Cliff arrives at the South Seas Club, he hides the rocket and helmet in a laundry bag in the laundry room. When he returns, he finds the room full of a dozen more bags.
  • Newsreel
  • Nice Character, Mean Actor: Neville Sinclair is an Errol Flynn-style '30s action hero actor who turns out to be a Nazi spy, killing multiple people (enemy and ally alike) in his quest to steal the jetpack for his Nazi superiors so they can take over the world.
    • He's short-tempered toward the young starlet who kept messing up her takes, got Jenny fired, and accidentally stabbed his co-star (he was on-edge by then) when Cliff destroyed the set.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Jenny was about to take a taxi home from the South Seas Club when Cliff had to fly into the ballroom and trash the place, piquing her curiosity and getting herself kidnapped by Sinclair.
  • Nonindicative Name: In fact, everyone keeps calling the device in question "The Rocket" when everything that's shown tells us it's basically a jet engine.
    • Completely justified by the fact that in 1938 "jet engine" was something that only few people were aware of and even fewer could have recognized one.
  • No MacGuffin, No Winner: The rocketpack gets destroyed when Neville Sinclair crashes and burns into the Hollywoodland sign, although Peevy took very good notes when they dismantled the rocketpack earlier in the movie, and got his notes back from Jenny after she swiped them back from Sinclair...
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Justified. The rocket pack we see is the protoype; Howard Hughes burns the plans ten minutes in, but Peevy draws new ones, with plans to build an improved version.
  • Not Wearing Tights
  • Not What I Signed On For: Valentine.
  • Opera Gloves: Jenny
  • Papa Wolf: Eddie Valentine is protective of his fellow gangsters (see also: Even Evil Has Standards).
  • Parrot Expo-what?: "The Rock-a-who?"
  • Police Are Useless: Until the end.
  • Punny Name: Lothar, which sounds like Lothario, a philanderer from Don Quijote, which this guy is anything but.
  • Recycled Trailer Music: This movie may not be very well-remembered, but unless you haven't been to a movie theater since 1991, you absolutely have heard this score used in trailers for dozens hundreds of other movies. Have a listen.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Cliff is Red to Peevey's Blue.
  • Remaster: The 20th Anniversary Blu-Ray release. Its HD picture looks especially remarkable in comparison to the Pan and Scan VHS and non-anamorphic Letterbox laserdisc and DVD.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Sinclair screams like this when the rocketpack on him explodes and engulfs him in a fireball, after which he is hurled into the "-LAND" letters of the Hollywoodland sign.
  • Secret Identity: Toyed with. The movie's compressed timescale (it takes place over three days) means that, over the course of the movie, Cliff's identity is a secret only in that it hasn't been publicly revealed, and not a lot of people have heard of the Rocketeer. There's no indication that he was trying particularly hard to keep it a secret—or even that he wanted to keep it a secret, long-term—and the film shows that anyone really interested in the Rocketeer's identity discovers it pretty quickly. In fact, when Cliff tells Jenny his big secret—that he's the Rocketeer—Jenny just says, "The Rock-a-who?"
  • Sequel Hook: Jenny gives Peevy a perfect duplicate of the rocketpack's schematics. "Oh, no," groans Peevy.
  • Shout-Out: Cliff never flies without some Beeman's Gum, just like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
    • It's also Truth in Television, as Beeman's was long considered the lucky gum of pilots.
    • In the air show, the announcer refers to Secord as "the Fearless Freep", a reference to the Looney Tunes cartoon short "High Diving Hare." An anachronism, as "High Diving Hare" came out in 1949 and The Rocketeer is set eleven years earlier.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Jenny is briefly dazzled by Neville's charm and star power, but quickly returns to her long-term boyfriend because he loves and respects her.
    • And because Neville keeps trying to court her by quoting lines from his own movies. And then there's the evil—and not just any run-of-the-mill evil, but being a Nazi spy. Not the best dating tactic. Nor is chloroforming and kidnapping your date. And definitely not taking her hostage for a rocket pack, of all things.
  • So Long, Suckers!: A note-perfect example, complete with one-liner and swift, ironic death.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: A Nazi propaganda film shows German troops equipped with Jet Packs flying to the attack, with maps showing arrows representing them reaching out to conquer Europe and invade the U.S. Watch it here.
  • Stocking Filler: Jenny's first scene.
  • Stupid Jetpack Hitler: Preventing this is the story's main plot.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: Towards the end, as Cliff picks up his helmet before flying after the zeppelin.
  • Thermal Dissonance: The rocketpack stays cool even after flight, attributed to a double-walled chamber and preheated fuel.
  • Tap on the Head: Many times; played with in that the victims sometimes recover faster than their assailants were planning.
  • Think Nothing of It: Hughes slips away at the end before Cliff can even think of expressing his gratitude.
  • Toasted Buns: An attempt at handwaving was made, though.
  • Today X, Tomorrow the World!: "Heute Europa, Morgen die Welt"
  • The Thirties
  • Those Two Guys: FBI agents Fitch and Wooly.
  • Those Wacky Nazis
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Some people said they didn't need to see the film, the trailer told the whole story.
  • Trojan Horse: The Luxembourg airship, ostensibly in Los Angeles for peaceful purposes.
  • Two-Fisted Tales: The comics and movie alike were loving homages to the Two-Fisted Tales of the Thirties.
  • Vanilla Edition: The laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-Ray releases were all this, even the "20th Anniversary Edition".
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where Jenny hides the rocket pack plans.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Sinclair has it when he learns the jig is up and he is revealed as a Nazi. It first happens when he catches Jenny reading up on it and kidnaps her for real. It then becomes more obvious when Cliff manages to convince Valentine and his gang that Sinclair, their boss, is a Nazi. When the gangsters confront their former boss with this information, not only does Sinclair confirm this by holding them all hostage with a new gang, this one of Nazi soldiers lurking in the shadows, but he does all this while speaking — nay, screaming, rather abruptly in German!
  • Wag the Director: Sinclair gets Jenny fired after Cliff accidentally destroyed the set of "The Laughing Bandit" looking for her.
  • Was It All a Lie?: Variation. "It wasn't lies, Jenny. It was acting!"
  • Wasn't That Fun?: After his first flight with the rocketpack, Cliff simply says "I like it!"
  • Weapon of Choice: The FBI Agents and the Police use Colt Official Police revolvers, while the mobsters use Colt 1911 pistols and Colt 1903/1908 Hammerless Pistols. Also, in a Shout-Out to the comic books, The Rocketeer uses a Mauser C96 near and during the climax. In the comics, the Mauser C96 Broomhandle was his weapon of choice.
  • Wicked Cultured: Neville Sinclair. Lothar, too, as he's introduced listening to opera and enjoying sandwiches with the crusts cut off when Sinclair calls him.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Everyone in the movie keeps calling it a "rocket" (Even Howard Hughes who built the damn thing) desite the fact that everything we see in the movie marks the device as a jetpack. Although this is Justified, as in the Thirties the jet engine wasn't exactly commonplace.
    • It's actually odder than it seems - the reason NASA has the Jet Propulsion Lab is because the word was actually used to refer to rockets as well.
  • You Must Be Cold
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Since it's only a slightly alternate version of The Thirties (see above), the Germans use a zeppelin to visit 1938 Los Angeles (when in fact airship travel ended in 1937 with the Hindenburg).
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