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This summer director Joe Johnson managed to take nearly everyone by surprise when he turned in Captain America: The First Avenger, one of the most energetic and enjoyable superhero movies of the year. But the movie's nostalgic kick and generous spirit should have been no surprise to anyone familiar with The Rocketeer, Johnson's 1991 film about a young pilot who happens upon a jetpack designed by Howard Hughes and uses it to become a kind of homemade superhero.
With the 20th anniversary of The Rocketeer happening this year, the movie has finally been released on Blu-Ray, and is available for purchase now. To celebrate the new release, we got on the phone with the film's star, Billy Campbell, whose first movie role came in The Rocketeer, and who says he's been recognized for the movie ever since. He also talked about how much he misses practical effects, how the movie changed his life, and why this wound up being his first role instead of playing a terrorist in Die Hard… or was it Die Hard 2?
Check out our conversation below, and also a handful of clips from the film. You can buy The Rocketeer many places, including here.
Do you get recognized for this movie in a way that's disproportionate to the relatively minor box office?
Not at first, but over the years definitely. People who know the film and appreciate it really, really know it and appreciate it. And so many people have loved it over the years that I do still get that. It's kind of pleasing, it's quite nice.
How long after the movie came out did you realize people had latched on to it and loved it?
It was sort of a cumulative thing over the years, 5 or 10 years of realizing wow, this movie happened a decade ago, and I'm still having people come up to me and speak enthusiastically about it. And that doesn't happen all the time. I've made countless movies that I'd be surprised if anybody remembered.
What did getting this role mean for you at that point in your career? Was it a huge leap forward or change of pace?
Oh it was a huge leap forward. It was the first film I ever did. I was almost a terrorist in Die Hard or Die Hard 2, but then it was going to be a big TV season for me and my agents pulled me out of it. And then The Rocketeer happened. It was huge for me. It was my first film, it was big in every way. Jennifer [Connelly] and I fell in love, it just was enormous. I got to work with all these amazing people, it was crazy. It was a little like a fantasy.
Do you look back on this role and cringe thinking of things you could have done better, or is it all just part of the process of learning?
I always look back at everything I do and cringe at something. And I always think to myself, oh absolutely, there are scenes or bits of scenes that I wish I could wipe off the blackboard. And it's no different with The Rocketeer, no different at all.
This movie kind of came out right before the big boom of superhero movies. Do you feel like you missed out on that wave?
I'm not all that much of a superhero aficionado. Even when I was into comic books, which I still am really, the superhero genre didn't pluck a string. The Rocketeer did, but it's not as much about the concept of somebody being a superhero, it's about the time and the place and the setting and all of the characters ,and the fact that he's a normal guy who's kind of screwing up.
Did you see Captain America though?
I did see Captain America and I loved it.
A lot of people thought The Rocketeer was the key to why Joe Johnson did so well with that.
I don't know who else they would have thought of for that. I think The Rocketeer is probably one of the very best, if not very best, adaptation of a comic book ever done. I don't know who else you might have thought about to do that. The Rocketeer in a lot of ways, the film, is even an improvement on the comic book.
The Rocketeer was made right before the CGI era started. Do you feel like the practical effects were crucial to this, and something that you miss?
Absolutely. I'm a fan of practical effects, and I think where CGI effects are used they should be invisible. For my money one of the best uses of CGI I know of is Master and Commander, and I defy you to watch that film and tell me exactly where the CGI is. I'd far rather watch a film with tiny little models or spaceships and cities any day than I would watch something with CGI. I'm not a fan of CGI not done well. It has no heart, it has no heart at all. It's cheating, and no matter how spectacular-- in fact, the more spectacular the effect, the more of a cheat it is.