Taking to the skies with a failed Disney superhero adventure and sharing some sniffles with Julia Roberts.
Nutshell: In 1938, ambitious flying ace Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and his trusty mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) are looking to make their mark in aerial races, only to find their hopes dashed with the crash landing of their finest plane. When the boys happen upon a hastily stashed rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), Cliff accepts the challenge, strapping on the machine and soaring into the sky, soon finding himself using the device to rescue friends and thrill spectators, hoping to keep his identity a secret, even from his dear love, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly). On the hunt for the rocket are mobsters (Paul Sorvino), federal agents, Hughes, and dashing Hollywood star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who’s lust for the machine unveils his true political and national allegiances.
Quick note: The screenshots for “Rocketeer” are lackluster, I know. Blame Disney, who’ve yet to issue a Blu-ray of the film. Heck, there’s not even a proper DVD release to pull from. Phooey.
1991: Throughout my time working at the five-plex, I grew to crave the front-line feeling of the weekend box office race. By selling tickets and sensing crowd reaction, it was easy to spot hits and bombs within this multiplex microcosm, understanding a picture’s fortune and glory long before the Monday box office listing (oh yeah, we had to wait until Monday or Tuesday to get those numbers two decades ago) confirmed the obvious. It was almost a rush at times, spending the early moments of a shift monitoring theaters, absorbing the vibe of the building, attempting to deduce the number one movie in America. Now box office totals are solidified on Friday afternoon, right after lunch. In 1991, we had the whole weekend to speculate.
Disney obviously believed they were in possession of a sure thing with “The Rocketeer,” a rare foray into the Spielberg/Lucas world of retro adventuring for the studio, who clearly patterned the picture off the effervescent Indiana Jones universe. Bringing Dave Stevens’s comic book adventure to the big screen was a no-brainer, with the artist serving up bold displays of superhero antics and sinister villains, packaged in serial form, with great attention to thrills and spills. How could this character not have his own movie?
The Mouse House went all out, spending a fortune to market the feature as a spellbinding summer diversion for the whole family. The striking Art Deco-inspired poster was out front and center the entire run of promotion, setting an irresistible retro tone, eschewing movie star faces to focus solely on the Rocketeer and his stylized way of flight. Disney even used a theme park to pimp the picture, blanketing the former Disney-MGM Studios with props and storefronts tied the film, some of which still stand to this day, though I’m positive 99% of tourists don’t have a clue what they’re looking at. Poor sunburned chumps, faced with phenomenal reminders of moviemaking history and all they crave is a handshake from Mickey.
My memory from the film’s opening weekend is one of empty theaters. It played our biggest house and all weekend “The Rocketeer” died a slow, painful death. Matinees were a ghost town, though I take comfort in the fact that those who took the time to see the picture generally enjoyed it, openly asking the staff where the rest of the crowds had gone. It was a cruelty inflated to depression once I had a chance to visit the movie, falling immediately in love with its retro charm (e.g. glammy nightclubs, the Hollywoodland sign, and zeppelin attacks), cracking pace, and sock-em mentality. The James Horner score also heightened adoration, with the composer finding the perfect themey accompaniment to a wonderfully adventurous motion picture. I loved “The Rocketeer,” even as it was released on the heels of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” The summer of 1991 gave birth to two incredible action features, and we were only a few weeks in.
Oh, and there was this.
It wasn’t long before the feature was demoted to a smaller house, though it was heartening to see a faint sense of word-of-mouth develop around the picture. Sadly, it was far too late to matter. “The Rocketeer” was hustled out of theaters in a hurry. No sequels, not much love, and no more Jenny Blake.
Box office gods, you got this one wrong.
2011: Now it’s easy to understand why “The Rocketeer” failed to ignite as a summer blockbuster. The poster, while stunning, was inappropriate, needing a human touch to help articulate the moviegoing experience. Only Disney and their virginal might would make a film with Connelly and not put her on the one sheet. It’s like a pizza ad that only touts a new box design. The marketing also skewed a little too young, using tried and true Disney tricks to create some conversation about the feature without hipping up the promotional push. It’s difficult to argue with the methods that turned “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” into a smash, but “The Rocketeer” needed a harder edge to reel the average moviegoer in. The same old Disney voiceover guy and kitten trailer beats stuck out like a sore thumb here. Clearly, something confused ticket buyers in 1991, or maybe the punch-drunk public just needed a breather before “Terminator 2” placed its boot on everyone’s throat.
All these years later, and I’ve sustained my love for this picture, a film that’s lost none of its appeal over the last two decades. In fact, director Joe Johnston’s movie is perhaps more valuable today than it was in 1991. There’s nothing ironic or gloomy about “The Rocketeer,” which rides a beam of sincerity that’s utterly enchanting, happily playing into the serial tone of the material with a broad, but neatly arranged superhero surprise that has a ball with set design (the Bulldog Café looks like greasy spoon heaven), costuming, and performance. The feature has fun with itself, and that sugary spirit is infectious, building a stirring origin event for Secord as he breaks in his wild method of transport and rescue.
“The Rocketeer” is a beautifully directed, high-flyin’ production, teeming with all sorts of classic Hollywood encounters and bizarre comic book touches (including Sinclair henchman Lothar, who looks like a leftover goon from “Dick Tracy”). Johnston keeps a firm grasp on momentum, corralling together various teams on the hunt for the rocket, creating a chase scenario that gives our hero something to do besides boogie with special effects. I’m fond of the lead performance from Campbell, who was an odd choice in 1991, yet captures the caveman-like appeal of Cliff, who’s a sweet guy, but not afraid to throw punches at a moment’s notice. Campbell’s handsome and personable, making a fitting impression while the supporting cast gnaws on their meatier roles. Especially Dalton, who’s pitch-perfect as an arrogant Errol Flynn-type, using his serpentine Hollywood ego to detect and seduce, charming his way to the ultimate goal, with Jenny a delightful complication.
If there was one complaint to be made about “The Rocketeer,” I would have point out the distinct lack of confident rocketeering from Cliff. It was a disappointment in 1991 and remains unsatisfactory today: the film needed more action, more time with the flaming backpack. Watching Cliff grow accustomed to his machine is amusing, but the actual amount of hovering heroism is minuscule in the movie. The end promised sequels that were killed off by the lack of box office coin, leaving “The Rocketeer” one long set-up without a satisfying payoff. It hurts the heart to see the picture work itself up so wonderfully, only with nowhere to go. A true cinematic crime.
Still, we have this to provide comfort.
Nutshell: Searching for employment after the demise of her last relationship, Hilary O’Neil (Julia Roberts) answers an ad for a live-in nurse, tasked with caring for Victor Gettes (Campbell Scott), a 28-year-old man entering his 10th year battling leukemia. Accepting the job, Hilary asserts her care immediately, helping Victor fight the vicious effects of chemotherapy. Love quickly assumes command of the situation, with Victor taking advantage of his remission by moving out to the country with Hilary, looking to live a full life with his girlfriend. While their happiness blossoms, Victor finds familiar pains have returned, threatening the domestic peace he craves.
1991: Pretend you’re 20th Century Fox and you’ve just signed Julia Roberts up for an adaptation of a popular novel, a proven tearjerker sure to hit big with females who fell in love with the actress during her 1990 “Pretty Woman” world tour. Even better, Roberts scored with “Flatliners” from the same year, accelerating her box office worth. And geez louise, a solo effort, the thriller “Sleeping with the Enemy,” released in February 1991, went on to become a major moneymaker in a sleepy season. Suddenly, you’re in possession of the nation’s most popular actress in a can’t-miss genre, with her “Flatliners” director Joel Schumacher calling the shots.
20th Century Fox did what any studio would’ve done in that situation: they broke out the champagne, played up the syrup in the marketing, and made sure to slap a picture of a beaming Julia Roberts on anything slappable. “Dying Young” was a sure thing. Heck, there was even a Kenny G theme song. You can’t go wrong with a Kenny G theme song. Just ask “Schindler’s List.”
Julia Roberts created quite a stir in 1991, playing her “America’s Sweetheart” role all the way to the bank, grabbing headlines with her every move, from failed relationships to professional gigs. “Dying Young” was intended to be the culmination of her box office success, positioning the actress as an unstoppable force unleashed during a summer of sequels and actioners, using her full mane of hair and pouty pout to steal her slice of the summer moviegoing pie. Fox was happy to oblige with a marketing hurricane, enthusiastically trumpeting the lovers-at-the-edge-of-death plot as the antidote to the summer thrill ride, and this beast had JULIA FROOKING ROBERTS as the star, a fact the studio wasn’t shy to share.
Interestingly, “Dying Young” did just that upon release, barely making a financial dent when so many expected it to clean up. Perhaps the cancer plot spooked more easily upset moviegoers. Maybe Julia Roberts fatigue was setting in (her nuclear break-up with fiancé Kiefer Sutherland was big news at this time). Or maybe the picture was, you know, frustratingly mediocre?
2011: I honestly haven’t thought of “Dying Young” since 1991, where I quickly tossed the picture into the recycling bin of my mind. Watching this feature again didn’t exactly stir up potent memories, requiring the yellowed pages of The Brichives to help goose some thoughts. It appears I didn’t care much for the movie 20 years ago. While impressed with the opening hour, I expressed disinterest in the remainder of the film, while pointing out how vivid the chemotherapy scenes where. Also noted was Campbell Scott’s intense performance. Nothing much about Roberts.
At the risk of being completely boring here, revisiting “Dying Young” didn’t shake any fresh feelings or reactions, with my modern take almost perfectly in step with my youthful one. It’s not a strong or particularly endearing motion picture, caught in the stylish middle, with Schumacher Schumachering all over the film with extravagant lighting and blustery interiors, while two actors attempt to generate heat without the benefit of a passionate screenplay.
Indeed, the introductory scenes are stocked with mystery, getting to understand Victor and the routine of his treatments, while Hilary grows into a powerful vessel of support, all the while keeping her hair perfect and her early ‘90s style in order. The chemo sequences don’t retain the same shock value they once did due to my maturation, but they maintain a medical bite that’s horrifying, with the filmmaker eager to keep Victor sweaty and ashen, sustaining his cancerous low to make a profound impression. The picture clicks when monitoring the relationship in its professional state, keeping things frosty and procedural before the script unleashes its formulaic blast of dewy twinkles.
This being an adaptation of a novel, “Dying Young” goes into the toilet once the twosome take to the country, thus complicating the story in ways that knock Schumacher unconscious. Subplots, including one with flirty handyman Gordon (an atypically palatable Vincent D’Onofrio), are introduced and aborted, performances grow indulgent and confused, and the script appears to be headed toward a suicidal conclusion for Victor that never arrives (the ending is much more hopeful). Once Victor and Hilary make the beast with two backs, the film doesn’t recover, losing focus and dramatic muscle, wallowing in the uninteresting love story between two individuals who never generate a believable spark. The feature aches to be tragic and vulnerable, but it mostly spins in its own sick.
Being a major league debut of sorts for Campbell, the young actor is terrific with the tortured horndog material, playing voyeuristic ache with a natural life that helps to understand his character’s motivation for hiring Hilary. Though these days he looks as though he’d rather be plumbing sport stadium urinal troughs than acting, “Dying Young” was an impressive mainstream debut for Campbell, who truly infuses the film with a sense of deliberation. As for Roberts, she’s doing her hair-flipping best to come across wounded and alert, but it’s a lost cause. She’s more set decoration than actress here, with Schumacher awkwardly pocketing his homosexuality to portray Hilary as an object of desire. As expected, it doesn’t quite work out, despite short skirts, shower scenes, and a ‘90s dance party sequence where Roberts resembles an extra from “House Party.”
But all is not lost, dear reader. We still have the power of the pout.
Coming next week…
Frank Drebin returns, pop culture and slapstick cower in fear.