Flying High with The Rocketeer (and Loving Timothy Dalton as a Villain)

This is my contribution to You Knew My Name: The Bond Not Bond Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Check out their blogs for lots more pieces on films starring James Bond actors that aren’t James Bond films!

The summer of 1991 in cinematic terms was arguably dominated by two titans of popular culture – Robin Hood and The T-101 (or T-800). The latter, as seen in James Cameron’s awesome Terminator 2: Judgement Day, obliterated the action spectacle competition with its state of the art special effects, exhilarating action and compelling elaboration of the original’s universe. It’s still regarded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner’s mammoth Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves might have played fast and loose with English geography, accents and historical accuracy, but its crowd-pleasing theatrics, fabulous villainy (Alan Rickman, managing to add another classic baddie to his roster after his already-phenomenal achievement in Die Hard) and a Bryan Adams song so ubiquitous it stayed at the top of the UK charts for SIXTEEN weeks all added up to a damned good time at the movies. I was too young to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger get tangled amongst all that liquid metal madness, but I did get to watch Robin Hood, as the BBFC had cut enough of it to secure a PG rating (nevertheless, it was still heavily complained about at the time by concerned parents), and I was enthralled by it. It’s imperfect when I watch it today, but at the time it left me feeling ecstatic. Yet there was another slice of irresistible escapism that summer that I was similarly knocked out by, even if it didn’t conquer cinemas in the same way – its domestic box office was approximately $46 million to Robin‘s $165 million – I’m talking about Joe Johnston’s tremendously entertaining The Rocketeer. Thanks to a magnificent but sadly unsuccessful marketing campaign that emphasised the 1940s art deco leanings of the time over its stars, which included new kid on the block Bill Campbell, knockout starlet Jennifer Connelly and the main focus of this piece – Timothy Dalton – The Rocketeer struggled to find an audience, which is a shame, as it was and still is a great, affectionate and exciting comic book adventure. And Timothy Dalton’s in it. Did I mention that?

Based on Dave Stevens’ 1982 comic strip, The Rocketeer is an affectionate throwback to Hollywood’s golden age of movie serial adventures; set in Los Angeles in 1938, and with the threat of a new world war looming, both the US government and the Nazis are hell bent on obtaining a remarkable invention that could change the face of aerial combat forever. Not that its creator – Howard Hughes himself – ever wanted his state-of-the-art jetpack to be used as a weapon. The one and only prototype was in the hands of mobsters, but after a hair-raising pursuit and a hasty decision to hide it in the garage of a nearby airfield, it ends up discovered by young pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his mechanic buddy Peevy (Alan Arkin), who have no idea how important this thing is and start testing it to see what its capable of, and maybe get a career out of its spectacular capabilities, if only for a while until they can afford to replace their beloved plane that was recently destroyed.

The plot’s wild card is Neville Sinclair, a Hollywood star who also wants the rocket for reasons unknown. He wants it real bad though; he’s even willing to double his original reward to the mob for obtaining it, and then not refusing when they demand it be tripled. Sinclair, as played by Mr. Timothy Dalton himself, is the archetypal matinee idol of that era, complete with his perfect moustache and dashing, handsome good looks. He’s the star of swashbuckling epics such as The Laughing Bandit, featuring the kind of hero who he remains a mystery to all the other characters until he removes his sackcloth mask (the kind Zorro wears) and suddenly everyone’s amazed that it was none other than Sir Reginald all along. Once he discovers that Cliff has the rocket, and that Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is an extra on the set of his film, he uses his wily, persuasive charms on her over dinner (she’s currently heartbroken over Cliff’s insensitive attitude to towards her thespian ambitions) at the city’s most glamourous nightspot to try and find out where it is…

Sinclair’s true motives remain a mystery for the most part, although there’s a rather sinister moment when the actor playing The Laughing Bandit’s nemesis is revealed to have been stabbed during the filming of the climactic action scene. As a child, I always wondered – did Sinclair do this on purpose, or was it an accident? If it was intended, maybe it was because he thought the other actor was, to quote the injured performer, ‘stealing the scene’? This bit is never referred to again, but it does make one even more suspicious as to how nefarious this extremely popular movie star really is. And of course, he really is a bad one. Like, real bad. Yep, he’s a Nazi.

We don’t find out this until the final half hour, but it’s the perfect revelation for a character who is built upon lie upon lie upon lie, although, as Sinclair himself would have it, ‘it wasn’t lies…it was acting’. Dalton playing an actor who is also a Nazi pretending to be a matinee idol – although he genuinely is one thanks to his success (the number 3 draw in Hollywood, lest we forget) – and this makes him a deliciously, dastardly villain. It’s true, the mob could pull out the thumb screws to get all the info they need out of Jenny to obtain the rocket, but Sinclair prefers the more insidious, pleasurable option of seduction. He pulls out all the stops at the South Seas nightclub, laying on the charm with Jenny during a dance (they’re the first ones on the floor and soon the whole place is full of couples) and as a concerned listener when she talks about her problems with Cliff. Just watching this total rat smile with phoney warmth as she talks about Cliff being ‘the sweetest guy in the world’ or taking in all the seemingly innocuous information she’s unwittingly providing him with the eyes and ears of a spy and saboteur, and being very annoyed when this is being interrupted by Cliff posing undercover as a waiter, is fabulously enjoyable stuff. Of course, seeing Dalton play someone trained in deception is not new – after all, we’ve already see him play James Bond in two films, and Bond’s use of manipulation in both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill are essential driving forces to the plot.

In The Living Daylights, Bond pretends to be a close friend of one of the film’s villains – phoney defector Georgi Koskov – in order to win the trust of Koskov’s girlfriend Kara (Maryam D’Abo). Their relationship is based on lies on Bond’s part, although there is a genuine warmth between the two. Plus, it helps that Koskov himself turns out be an even more wicked liar to Kara, having set her-up to be killed – by Bond – near the start. It’s only Bond’s reluctance to kill what he recognises as an unprofessional that stops him from doing so. So yeah, Bond is a liar, but he has a code. The lesser of two evils for Kara in this case. In Licence to Kill, the lies start off in typical Bond style – pretending to be someone interested in acquiring a shark in order to gain access to a deputy bad guy’s aquarium hideout, for instance – but around the halfway mark they become spectacularly complex. Seeking out chief villain Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) to avenge the brutal injuries enacted upon his friend Felix and the murder (as well as implied rape) of Felix’s bride Della, Bond pretends to be a potential new recruit for Sanchez’s loyalty-based inner sanctum of mercenaries and business partners, declaring himself to be a ‘problem eliminator’ who can be utterly trusted. This is all an elaborate means to scan the surrounding area so that he can work out the best way to anonymously kill him from across the street in an abandoned building. The eventual assassination goes badly wrong, but in the fallout of the bungled murder attempt, Bond finds himself entrusted even further within Sanchez’s world, and it’s here that he starts sowing the seeds of doubt within his enemy’s paranoid mind that leads to the successful killing of a (in this case innocent) deputy, access to the all-important villain’s lair and eventually, putting an end to Sanchez’s reign of violence in a final, brutal act of fiery vengeance. I hadn’t seen either Bond film before watching The Rocketeer, but watching both of Dalton’s 007 entries afterwards I was already comfortable with the actor’s ability to play liars. Interestingly, The Rocketeer was released during that limbo period where Dalton was still officially James Bond, but wouldn’t end up playing the role again – at the time this was have been a fascinating detour for the actor in-between his (or so we hoped) appearances as 007. After this, Dalton would also deliver a superb performance as a morally ambivalent criminal in the television adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s Framed for ITV, which only added more weight to the thought that – as superb as he was as Bond, he could have been just as brilliant playing a Bond villain too. Yet that’s why he’s so good as Bond – the dark side that comes out fully in his bad guy roles is always there when playing the hero, simmering under the surface, which is why he was so believable as a truly dangerous 007.

Back to the film in question; after having kidnapped her, Sinclair says to Jenny he is an unwilling part of this scheme, he’s being blackmailed by the mob and that he is a ‘victim’ too, but these are more lies. Shortly after he tries to convince Jenny of his love for her, but she exposes his bullshit when she recognises his words as the exact same things he said to Greta Garbo and Carole Lombard in his own movies. The guy just can’t be genuine if he tried. And yet, it’s a testament to how well Dalton plays Sinclair that he’s one of those villains we just love to hate – he’s so devilishly funny in his timing (love the way he says ‘desperately…’ when Jenny offers to try on one of the dresses he has in his home) and so winningly pompous throughout. When we discover the fascist truth about Sinclair, it becomes even easier to cheer on his inevitable demise, which takes place aboard a good-old fashioned zeppelin. This is where Dalton has nothing left to hide, so we can just enjoy him revel in pure, unadulterated villainy, complete with him barking orders in German, proudly claiming that ‘he does his own stunts’ when fighting Cliff (a nice reference to Dalton doing plenty of his own stunts when playing Bond), leaving the heroes to die in flames (what a rotter) and taking violent objection to being called a mere ‘actor’ by a fellow Nazi…he’s just amazing.

Taking its cues from the first and third Indiana Jones movies, the Nazi threat here is at once appropriately comic-book but also, as encapsulated in the pastiche of animated Third Reich propaganda that’s smuggled out of Germany, pretty damned chilling. Sinclair being a Nazi also plays heavily into the unfounded rumours that Errol Flynn was a Fascist sympathiser – those rumours only came about in 1980 thanks to Charles Higham’s controversial Flynn biography, and the waves of those accusations were still clearly being felt around the time of The Rocketeer‘s release. Was The Rocketeer rather cruelly adding more fuel to the fire by clearly referencing these rumours? Maybe, but like it or not, it definitely adds a fascinating frisson to the plot. That Sinclair’s true identity is never revealed to the public is interesting, as you can imagine that the real story could end up being a conspiracy theory of its own in the film’s own universe decades later. Sinclair’s demise may not be as spectacular as being turned to liquid goo or aging hundreds of years in the space of seconds like in Indiana Jones, but he nevertheless gets a classic send-off – blown to bits as he flies off to intended freedom with the rocket on his back, unaware that it’s leaking fuel everywhere, fuel that become an inferno after the pack’s been turned on. At least he gets a fantastic demented bout of cackling followed by screaming in his last moments, which is what all the best bad guys should have. Cheerio Dalton, you played a proper shit bag, and you were magnificent. And it’s not like Sinclair didn’t have a shred of humanity – he clearly loved his Rondo Hatton-inspired henchman Lothar, didn’t he?

The Rocketeer is fantastic entertainment; it looks very stylish, filmed in warm colours, and the action is very handsomely staged. The special effects were at once totally fine for their time but when compared to Terminator 2‘s unparalleled spectacle, it was already looking like a relic of the past. Which is appropriate I suppose, given that it’s a film set in the past. In fact, the FX are just right for the retro-leanings of the story, the atmosphere and the PG-friendly hard-boiled dialogue; this is the kind of film where the profanity does get any higher than ‘lousy feds’, and the threats are on the level of ‘you’ll be eating soft food for a month!’, that sort of thing. I love it. Campbell and Connelly are very attractive leads – Campbell has the boyish, floppy haired and bright young charm down well, although you could see why some critics thought he was somewhat bland. I think that’s missing the point though – his earnest, everyday, boy next door demeanour is precisely right. The breathtaking Connelly meanwhile, first seen putting on her stockings in a loving tracking shot and after that a constant, total sight to behold with her immaculate hair and unsmudgeable lipstick (inspired by Bettie Page to the point where that was her character’s name in the comics) is a paragon of innocence and sweet sexiness – as a ten year old watching this at the cinema, she was one of my first cine-crushes. Alan Arkin leads a mighty fine supporting cast of familiar faces, there’s James Horner’s triumphant, stirring score and that loving period detail that felt truly escapist to a young boy living in early 90s Greater London. It has great heroes, great heroines, and of course, a great, great villain. What more could I want?

PS: There’s an amusing link to Licence to Kill during the finale in that both Sanchez and Sinclair have to put up with increasingly complaining deputy villains who end up being too mouthy for their own good, with both stressed accountant Truman Lodge in LTK and that Goebbels look-a-like here getting shot for their troubles. Both main villains also get in a good one-liner too, with Sinclair’s ‘For the Fatherland!’ – in reference to the failing Zeppelin’s need to lose weight and gain altitude having just been solved – an absolute zinger.

9 thoughts on “Flying High with The Rocketeer (and Loving Timothy Dalton as a Villain)

  1. Pingback: The final day of You Knew My Name: The Bond Not Bond Blogathon! – Pale Writer

  2. I’ve often thought The Rocketeer looks like the sort of movie I would enjoy but somehow have never gotten around to it. Imagine! After all this time. Perhaps the coming year will see me rectify the situation.

  3. Have not seen this one but now I want to. With that fab moustache and all his savoir faire, Dalton indeed makes the perfect elegant villain. Every role he does is full of fun, and he always has a devilish twinkle in his eye.

  4. This was such a splendid review, Jimi! I haven’t seen this film in absolute eons, and I’m excited to rewatch it next year when we finally get Disney+ where I live. As you say, Dalton is so great as a villain. I feel like this is kind of a younger version of his character in Hot Fuzz, where he’s also so smooth and witty. And am I bad person for saying that I would totally choose Dalton over Campbell ever though the former is indeed a “shit bag”, as you so aptly put it 😂 Thanks so much for contributing such a wonderful article to our Blogathon 😊

    • Thank you so much, Gabriela! It means a lot that you enjoyed the review. You are not a bad person for favouring Dalton – the guy can dance, he can act, he does his own stunts and in case it needs reiterating – it’s TIMOTHY DALTON. We love him! I hope you enjoy the film when you revisit it – I love watching it again every now and then, it’s so much fun!

  5. I’ve heard good things about this movie, and now I think I’ll have to look for it. It seems underrated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s