Our story begins on an airfield in Southern California, where ace pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is testing out his new plane. But things get out of hand when a chase between the FBI and some Italian stereotypes stumble across the airfield as Cliff is trying to land, causing massive damage to the plane. In the confusion, one of the stereotypes switches out two cases, leaving a rocket pack in a nearby hangar. The Feds catch up with the bad guys and blow up their car, mistakenly believing to have destroyed the prototype the men had stolen. When the news reaches the prototype’s designer, Howard Hughes (Lost’s Terry O’Quinn), Hughes thinks maybe it’s for the best, and tosses the blueprints into a fireplace.
In the meantime, Cliff and his friend and mentor Peevy (Alan Arkin) are reduced to flying a prop plane as a joke, since apparently they weren’t insured against FBI shootouts. Cliff’s fortunes change when he discovers the rocket pack, which he accidentally uses to cause even more damage to the hangar. Cliff discovers its intended use, but Peevy won’t let him fly until he’s tinkered with it to ensure its safety.
Cliff also goes on a date with his main squeeze Jenny (Jennifer Connelly, who Ebert described as “pneumatic”), but after some generic griping about never going anywhere new or exciting, Jenny gets in a fight with Cliff after finding out about his earlier accident. Upset that Cliff didn’t tell her, Jenny storms off.
In the meantime, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), the Mafioso who commissioned the theft, meets his employer, foppish movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton, reprising his role as professional Erroll Flynn impersonator). Neville is upset at the delays in getting the rocket pack and brandishes a sword at his independent contractor. He then calls in his own hired goon, a Boris Karloff-esque monstrosity, to make sure the jet pack gets found.
It's the Adventures of the Masked Bandit who for legal reasons is not to be confused with Robin Hood!
Cliff and Peevy strap the pack to a mannequin and tether him to a field, then test out the rocket pack, with predictably hilarious results. Before Cliff gets a chance to test out the pack himself, he heads to the local wherever it is that plane races are held in the 30’s to take part in his stunt show. But since Cliff is running late, a depressed member of Cliff’s entourage who was shot down by the Red Baron takes his place, complete with sad-clown make-up. But the screw-up’s World War I depression catches up with him and he loses control of the plane. Cliff goes for the jetpack, and Peevy hands him a helmet with a fin on top that’s supposed to help him steer. When Cliff asks how he looks, Peevy quips “like a hood ornament.” Ouch. But even with his self-esteem in shambles, Cliff manages to use the jetpack, rocketing himself to his friend’s aid and pulling him free before the plane crashes. The promoter, the Italian Mafioso from Miller’s Crossing, says the rocket man was all part of the show, and dubs him “The Rocketeer.”
Meanwhile in case you didn’t get that Neville is Eroll Flynn he’s re-enacting a scene from Robin Hood, fighting dudes, swinging from cables, and saying clever things, when the scene is interrupted by a terrible line-reading from a part that Jenny had read for. Jenny and another girl are extras, and the other girl confides that Jenny’s audition was much better. Apparently now they have to do the entire scene again: this is why nobody does master shots of five minute castle fight scenes any more. They go through the whole bit again as Cliff appears, watching Jenny from behind some fake castle scenery: just imagine the imdb goofs page in 70 years when he shows up in a shot! But while Cliff watches, he accidentally leans against the wall, causing it to tumble over, nearly falling on Neville, who quickly makes a terrible pun about “bringing down the house.” But one of the co-stars is injured and needs to be carried out, prompting Neville to complain to the director to fire the extra Cliff came to see. Cliff tries to make up with Jenny who’s still pretty miffed at him, especially how he doesn’t respect her career and just got her fired, but Cliff thinks this is a good time to talk about the engine he found. Neville overhears Cliff from behind a fake wall, and he realizes Cliff is describing the rocket. Jenny gets her pay check and is told she’s fired, but before she can leave Neville swoops in and gives her job back before inviting her to the South Seas Club.
Cliff and Peevy argue about returning the pack when the Boris Karloff monster appears, attacking the duo and destroying Peevy’s house. As if that wasn’t enough, the FBI shows up outside and the Boris Karloff guy gets in a shootout. Since this is the FBI in the 30’s, Cliff and Peevy just go out the back door and leave. After shooting it out some more, Karloff realizes this isn’t going anywhere and makes his getaway. How does he fit through doorways? I’d like to see a series of silhouettes of his body going through the wall, looney tunes-style.
At the club, Jenny is showing off her best features in front of Clark Gable and other celebrity look-a-likes, while Neville talks about making her a movie star. It really is that easy, ladies! Just let your boyfriend find an experimental jetpack and all your Hollywood dreams can come true!
At the diner, Cliff calls the FBI to surrender the jetpack when Valentine’s goons show up. After trashing the place for awhile, most of the goons leave after hearing Jenny is at the club. Cliff takes care of the remaining goons and decides to rescue Jenny rather than surrender the jet pack.
Jenny and Neville share a dance, but Jenny starts to be creeped out by Neville’s constant staring. Cliff hides his rocket pack and dresses as a waiter, bothering Jenny until he finally gets her alone, where he tries to explain that goons are after her and rocket packs and other things and she needs to get away. Neville realizes no waiter at the South Seas club is as clutzy as Cliff and realizes who he is, sending Valentine’s goons to beat him up. Cliff gets chased around as he gets his pack, giving Jenny time to leave, but after hailing a taxi she changes her mind and goes back to watch the show.
Cliff gets the rocketeer uniform and rides around the club, upsetting patrons and knocking over giant claims, and gets in a fight with the Karloff-monster before Jenny knocks him out with a potted plant. The Rocketeer is nearly cornered but he notices the roof is glass, so he launches through it, causing shards of glass to fall on Hollywood’s elite. Jenny tries to run off, but gets chloroformed by Neville.
She wakes up in Neville’s house and pretends to come onto him before knocking him out. She then finds a secret radio room where a man is speaking in GERMAN. Also there’s a Nazi button and an autobiography reading Yes, I Am a Nazi by Neville Sinclair sitting on the shelf. Neville re-appears, favoring his head, and admits to being a Nazi, just so the audience is clear.
Rocketeer goes to the Griffith Observatory to meet up with Neville to get his girl back in exchange for the pack, but the FBI and Howard Hughes show up to queer the deal. Predictably the exchange doesn’t happen, but Valentine turns on Neville when he realizes he’s been working for a Nazi, as apparently Italian stereotypes hate Englishman who work for Germans. Neville gets away with Jenny on a Nazi Zeppelin he had hidden behind the Observatory for just such an occasion. OR DOES HE?!
No, he doesn’t. Cliff has a rocket pack. The two engage in a final showdown as Jenny casually murders one of Neville’s goons by tossing him out of a blimp a thousand feet up. She’s the real monster. Neville takes the pack, but a slow leak over the gasoline tank leads to what Peter Travers called an “explosively sizzling” ending.
It's a perfectly acceptable Disney film from 1991, which is to say it's completely uninspired in almost every way. But is it terrible? Not really. There's good ideas in the script of combining genres in a clever and creative way, but it doesn't really pay-off to anything. Bill Campbell is as wooden even for a serial actor, but without Harrison Ford's inexplicable charisma. Jennifer Connelly had already done a few films (including Labyrinth and Dario Argento's Phenomena), but this was her biggest feature as an adult.
What to Drink:
Cliff Secord: What was that line again? Oh my prince...
Jenny: ...would that you drink of my lips...
Cliff Secord: Thanks, I don't mind if I do.
Jenny: Oh my God. Neville Sinclair's a...
Neville: A what? Spy? Saboteur? Fascist? All of the above.
Cliff Secord: How do I look?Peevy: Like a hood ornament.