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‘The Rocketeer’ (PG)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 21, 1991

Based on a comic book, deliciously corny but not campy, "The Rocketeer" is the movie "Dick Tracy" and "Batman" wanted to be. This summer's big surprise imagines the shiny, happy technological future (the way it looked from 1938), bringing back memories of Tom Swift and other optimistic boys' sci-fi/adventure heroes. And it makes movie critics want to dust off words like "neato," "keen" and "swell!"

"The Rocketeer" has everything a kid of any age could wish for from a movie -- chase scenes, "Look! Up in the sky!" aerial stunts, swordfights, even mushy stuff. In fact, when its thrilling climax arrives, director Joe ("Honey I Shrunk the Kids") Johnston manages to out-Spielberg Spielberg.

But unlike other summer blockbusters, "Rocketeer" isn't all just special effects and starpower -- the emphasis is on story, characters and period look. It's got the heart and wit and Real Movie feel that's been absent too long from our big screens.

In 1938 Los Angeles, ambitious young racing pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) is prepping his cute little bumblebee plane for a national competition. But during a test flight, Campbell's Gee Bee is accidentally sprayed by machine-gun fire from a hill-and-dale cops-and-robbers chase, wrecking his plane and his plans.

Turns out the chase was on for a rocket pack -- designed by none other than Howard Hughes -- that enables its wearer to fly without wings. The world is at war, and naturally, everyone wants the gizmo.

The rocket was presumed destroyed in the chase, but Campbell discovers it stashed in an airplane hangar. Eager to try it out, he figures he can use it as a thrill-show gimmick and rebuild his plane with the bucks it brings in. After Campbell rescues a clown in an out-of-control plane (the first in the movie's escalating series of spectacularly clumsy rescues and escapes), the newspapers are abuzz about the mysterious rocket man -- dubbing him "The Rocketeer" -- and soon the chase is on again, with newshounds, gangsters, FBI agents and Nazis on Campbell's rocket trail.

Meanwhile, in a nearby subplot, Campbell's girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) is breaking into the movie biz as an extra in a swashbuckler starring Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), "the No. 3 box office star in America." The star starts sweet-talking naive Connelly, but he has other, more nefarious career plans (World Domination, what else?) and is using her to get to Campbell and the priceless rocket pack.

Director Johnston smoothly streamlines the movie's jumble of storylines -- before you know it, two hours are up and the world is saved. He's found some really fresh-faced fresh faces. Campbell resembles a young Jimmy Stewart and Connelly makes Jenny an ingenue with moxie. Dalton plays the Errol Flynn-ian Sinclair with twinkling malice and oozing schmooze. He should seriously consider dumping James Bond and playing bad guys from now on.

Based on Dave Stevens's 1981 graphic novel, "The Rocketeer" benefits from an unusually smart script, with snappy lines in even the smallest scenes, and refers visually to generations of action comedies, from "Son of Flubber" to "Roger Rabbit." The Disney designers have given it a stylish, richly detailed look -- particularly oooh-and-aaah-worthy are Campbell's sleekly futuristic Rocketeer getup, the whimsical Bull Dog Cafe and the swanky South Seas Club, Dalton's hangout. "The Rocketeer" proves someone still makes 'em like they used to.

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