(On DVD, November 2017) For proof that “old-fashioned” in no insult, look no further than The Rocketeer, a glorious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s and a highly enjoyable comic-book movie from a time well before the current glut of comic-book movies. If this film has a secret weapon, it’s charm. The kind of quasi-goofy, rather comfortable charm that you get with a morally upstanding square-jawed hero (Billy Campbell), a curly brunette heroine (Jennifer Connelly), a scenery-chomping villain (Timothy Dalton), a fun piece of technology (a rocket backpack!) and a voluntarily retro setting that pays affectionate homage to the best features of the era. Here we are at the heroic age of aviation, with Gee-Bees barnstormers, Hollywood glamour, Nazis lurking at the edges of the screen and Howard Hughes coming up with fantastic inventions. It’s certainly not challenging, but it’s a lot of fun. Director Joe Johnston has proven time and again his ability to deliver straightforward adventures, but The Rocketeer still stands as one of the highlights of his career. The special effects aren’t particularly good, but who cares when the script, and the film, have this scene-to-scene watchability that will keep viewers glued to the screen. A similar movie would probably do better today (The Rocketeer is definitely a spiritual ancestor to Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger), and as it turns out there are steady rumblings about a sequel any time soon. I’m looking forward to that.
(In French, On TV, January 2017) I’m not much of a horse guy, and Hidalgo is clearly designed to be a movie about a man and his horse. As a late-nineteenth-century cowboy head over to the Middle East to compete in a desert race, this is an adventure story in which the various women encountered by our protagonist don’t ever measure up to his affection for his own horse. It’s not a short film—once you factor in the lengthy prologue, various desert adventures, lengthy pans of the arid scenery, theme-juggling and various character-building moments, Hidalgo clocks at almost two hours and a half. (For a film about a long-distance desert race, the race itself often takes a back seat to other more pressing matters.) Fortunately, there is something good at the heart of it all. Thanks to director Joe Johnston, the action sequences are capably put together and the adventure eventually gets a good sense of forward rhythm. Thanks to Viggo Mortensen, the protagonist earns our respect and pinto mustang Hidalgo himself makes quite an impression. Meanwhile, Louise Lombard and Zuleikha Robinson bring a welcome female presence to what could have been a mostly male story. In an effort to deliver a movie that has as much stuff as possible, Hidalgo also brews a complex mixture of thematic concerns, from a stranger-in-a-strange land narrative to a man-and-his-horse romance to more prosaic survival and rescue segments. As rousing desert adventures go (judiciously ignoring claims of it being “based on a true story”), Hidalgo is often better than most, even though some judicious cutting could have improved things for audiences who aren’t quite as much into horses and deserts as the filmmakers.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Critics weren’t kind to this remake of the 1941 horror-classic and, up to a certain point, it’s easy to see why: There isn’t much of a story here, nor too many chills. The tone can be inconsistent, and some moments feel more ridiculous than anything else. Additionally, the winks and nods to horror fans sometimes lead the story into small dead-ends (eg; the silver cane). Still, The Wolfman has a lot going for it in the visual department, from an effective gothic atmosphere to Joe Johnston’s often-clever direction. The makeup and special effects are used wisely and the cinematography can be adequately lugubrious at times. While not up to Tim Burton’s standards (You should see The Wolfman in a double-bill with Sleepy Hollow), there is a lot to like in the film’s visual presentation, which is a notch over the usual horror film. Unfortunately, the assets are often undermined by gratuitous gore taking down the film’s moment-to-moment impact from high-art to low-schlock, and there is a sense that the straightforward narrative isn’t up to the setting it inhabits. (Much like Anthony Hopkins seems to be slumming in a one-dimensional role.) Oh well; at least Benicio del Toro and Hugo Weaving can be compelling to watch, and if viewers get bored, there’s usually a nice image every few moments to keep things interesting.
(In theaters, July 2011) The inherent nationalism of the Captain America character makes it a tricky sell outside the United States. How best to translate a superhero originally developed to tap into pro-American anti-Nazi fever to an international audience that, to put it politely, may not believe as much in American exceptionalism? Nazis, unsurprisingly, are part of the answer: This Captain America not only takes places during World War 2 (albeit a dieselpunk-verging-on-atompunk fantasy version of WW2) and squares off against a supernatural Nazi opponent, but director Joe Johnston also adopts an un-ironic filming style reminiscent of classic adventure films. Fortunately, it all fits together, with a little surprise at the end: Trying something a bit different from other films superhero films proves to be a good idea, and Captain America turns into a refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment. A good chunk of the fun belongs to Chris Evans, who takes on the square-jawed heroics with unselfconscious honesty; good supporting roles also go to Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as an eccentric mentor and Tommy Lee Jones, chewing on the kind of gruff military man role he’s so naturally suited for. The story plays itself out over a few years, with a few unexpected hooks and references to the real-world history of Captain America: keep your eyes out for a reproduction of the real Captain America #1 cover during the film’s amusing showbiz digression. Fans of the Marvelverse put on film will love the references to Thor and the Iron Man hooks with the importance given to Tony Stark’s father. Add to that a few good supporting characters, a decent romance with chronological room to grow, a nifty coda and some fascinating special effects and Captain America isn’t just good enough to become a high point of Summer 2011 in Hollywood, but a superb lead-in to 2012’s The Avengers.