Welcome to part two of my look at pulp movies…
When last we met, I was discussing The Shadow starring Alec Baldwin. There’s a bit of additional info regarding that film I want to share. For some reason, it has never been released in the USA in its proper aspect ratio. The DVD is one of those butcheries known as “pan and scan,” in which they’ve sliced the sides of the image off in order to make it fit on an old-fashioned, non-widescreen TV screen. This kind of treatment is a travesty for any film, but The Shadow is a really nicely shot, lushly designed film, so it’s doubly so.
There may be international releases available in the proper ratio; I’ll leave that for others to investigate. But you can see the movie as intended streaming on Netflix and Amazon. On the latter, it’ll cost you $2.99 unless you’re an Amazon Prime member, in which case it’s free.
Now, on with the show…
With this adaptation of Dave Stevens’ wonderful comic book ode to the rocketing heroes of yesteryear, Joe Johnston proved years ago that he was the right man to direct a gung-ho pulp era adventure flick like Captain America. Set in 1938, The Rocketeer is the story of Cliff Secord, a struggling stunt pilot, who, through a trick of fate, finds himself in possession of an experimental jetpack (built in the film by Howard Hughes, but in the comics by Doc Savage!). The jetpack is sought by villainous forces, both in the mafia and in Nazi Germany, and as they try to get it from him Cliff is forced into action.
The Rocketeer is a delight, but for whatever reasons it didn’t do well in theaters. Billy Campbell as Cliff is the perfect leading man, dashing and humble and wonderfully over his head. Jennifer Connelly is fiery and gorgeous as his beloved Jenny. Timothy Dalton brings swashbuckling villainy to his role as a sinister movie star. The rest of the cast is great too, made up of character actors like Alan Arkin, Paul Sorvino, Ed Lauter, and Terry O’Quinn.
Johnston directs with energy and wit and a deft feel for character, bringing a pulp world of Art Deco style and Depression-era earthiness to life. He came to the film as a fan of the comic, and unlike many Hollywoodites who are given the task of adaptation, he went out of his way to be true to the source material; for example, he fought a studio directive that the Rocketeer’s trademark Deco bug-eyed helmet be changed to a NASA-style helmet that would show the actor’s face. The result is a perfect cinematic tribute to Dave Steven’s engaging tales and incredible artwork.
Disney had originally intended a Rocketeer trilogy but the weak box office killed the idea. Over the years, though, the film has built up a following, and is finally coming to Blu-Ray in December with a (hopefully packed) 20th anniversary edition. With the success of Captain America, and Johnston’s recent statement that he’d love to make another Rocketeer movie, I’d say it’s time for Cliff Secord to return to action. Joe, bring back Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly, set the film in 1958, and give me a call. I’m ready to write the script.
Based on Lee Falk’s long-running comic strip, The Phantom is admittedly goofy, and even campy, but it works. It just does. It’s loopy fun, with great serial-inspired action, a bold and square-jawed hero (Billy Zane), wildly over-the-top bad guys (led by Treat Williams), a pair of sexy dames (Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones), and an appropriately pulpy story full of dashing heroism and mystical McGuffins.
These flicks, and the superb Mike Mignola comics which inspired them, are pure pulp goodness all the way through. Timeless evil, dark Lovecraftian gods, monstrous Nazis, secret government organizations, vicious demons, all manner of eldritch goings-on…
And a hulking red demon hero in a trenchcoat, chomping a cigar, making smart-ass quips as he goes toe-to-toe with Cthulhu’s brood and tries desperately not to fulfill his destiny, which is to be an integral participant in the Apocalypse.
There’s so much to say about Hellboy, both on film and in the comics, that I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts to write them down. On the page, Mignola’s art is shadowy and impressionistic and Kirby-esque and wholly distinctive; nobody else draws like Mignola. His storytelling is equal parts adventure and myth, and reading the comics feels like reading a heroic pulp story and a folk tale at the same time. Mignola starts in the realms of folklore and builds his stories the way a good shaman would build a lesson tale.
(For more Mignola goodness, check out Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire for which he did the visual design, which is itself a great pulp flick).
Guillermo del Toro, like Joe Johnston, is another director with respect for his source material. The movies are full of Mignola’s wit and imagination (and indeed, Mignola was deeply involved in production). But del Toro, whose oeuvre includes intelligent, visually creative works like Pan’s Labyrinth (which itself explored real world fascism through a lens of fairy tale), brings his own brilliance and vision to the work. The result is not just good pulp adventure movies, but damn good films.
Kind of. The first flick, Hellboy, doesn’t quite reach damn good status. Del Toro had a small budget and lots of interference from the studio, which kept him from making the movie he really wanted to make, though the one he did make is still strong and a lot of fun. But Hellboy II…
Hellboy II: The Golden Army is not just a great pulpy horror-adventure flick, it’s one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. Throwing Hellboy and his motley crew into battle with the mystical forces of an ancient race of fae immortals, del Toro has the budget and the clout to give us the movie he wants to give us this time around, giving us not just wit and action and gorgeous and/or horrifying imagery, but a story that’s actually about something: the loss of magic and wildness and nature in the world.
It’s action-packed and breathtaking and funny and lovely and at times genuinely moving. It’s great film-making, great myth-making, great world-making, and, of course, great pulp.
And Ron fucking Perlman? This is the part the man was born to play.
AND NOW, A SPECIAL TREAT…
There is now a group of literary aficionados in New York City who get together and read pulp fiction. But this isn’t just your everyday reading club. It’s called The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, and while reading they take advantage of New York’s wonderful law allowing women to roam topless at will. It was my deep misfortune while visiting friends in NYC recently not to encounter these bibliophiles in the wild, but they have a website where we can all go to enjoy their sun-blessed literary exploits: http://coedtoplesspulpfiction.wordpress.com.