Paul Sorvino's Key The Rocketeer Scene Is One Of The Great Movie Moments Of All Time

It is a sign of a truly great character actor that when they're taken from the world, you can't think of just one great role that defined their career. So it is with the great and now sadly departed actor Paul Sorvino, who died on July 25, 2022 at the age of 83. Though Sorvino may perhaps be best known for his supporting role as Paulie Cicero in the incomparable Mob drama "Goodfellas," his list of credits on stage, TV, and in film is immensely long and full of remarkable work that goes beyond any easy assumption that Sorvino always played a Mob heavy. 

Sorvino's career flourished and gained a second wind after "Goodfellas," with an eventual co-starring role in the early seasons of the NBC procedural "Law & Order," as well as appearances in films as varied as Baz Luhrmann's modern "Romeo + Juliet," Oliver Stone's "Nixon," Warren Beatty's "Bulworth", and more. That said, we are here today to commemorate Sorvino's long body of work as distilled into a single scene, and it is — yes — a scene in which he plays a gangster. The film arrived in theaters nearly a year after "GoodFellas," and is a cult classic as opposed to a widely beloved masterpiece: it's the 1991 adventure "The Rocketeer," and the scene in question is truly brilliant (and sadly still quite timely).

100% American

This article won't spend a great deal of time explaining why "The Rocketeer" is one of the best Disney films of all time and that you should watch it immediately, but it is and you should. To understand the scene in question, what you need to know that is the film's hero, pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), has stumbled upon a jetpack and helmet that enables him to fly around Los Angeles, circa 1938, and be temporarily dubbed the Rocketeer. Of course, in so doing, Cliff accidentally gets himself into a big mess that endangers his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) and embroils him with the FBI, Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), an Errol Flynn-style actor named Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who moonlights as a Nazi spy, and a cadre of gangsters working for said actor, led by Eddie Valentine (Sorvino). The climax of the film begins at night at Griffith Observatory, as Sinclair and Valentine have taken Jenny hostage and say they'll only free her if Cliff turns over the jetpack.

By this point, Cliff, Jenny, and we in the audience have learned that Sinclair is a Nazi in disguise, using his fame as a mask to hide his dirty, fascistic doings on the side. It should be noted that at no point prior to this scene have we gotten an inkling of any true character shading; whatever the charms of "The Rocketeer" are, and they are many, the character work is largely (and intentionally) one-dimensional. There are good guys, and there are bad guys, and never the twain shall meet. So Cliff's last gambit before handing over the jetpack seems destined to fail. Take a look for yourself. 

A true turn

Some of the best acting ever captured on film is wordless. And yes, there's a bit in that minute-long clip that features some truly brilliant acting. There are a couple of choice lines of dialogue in this scene, and the way in which Sorvino calmly, firmly, and with no attempt to showboat, says "I may not make an honest buck, but I'm 100% American" is genuinely thrilling. All you have to do to grasp Sorvino's immense and immeasurable talent as an actor is look at Eddie's eyes as he carefully weighs the fact that his boss is a "two-bit Nazi." The fact that all of the mobsters, without questioning it, shift allegiances just as Eddie does is exciting enough, but it's all in Sorvino's eyes as he communicates how quickly Eddie changes sides.

Of course, "The Rocketeer" owes a great debt to adventure classics like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where Nazis figure heavily in the plot and their eventual demise is played for maximum excitement value. And yes, Neville Sinclair does end up biting the big one later in "The Rocketeer." But 31 years later, the film's crowning achievement is this minute-long scene. There's no reason for the Mob to draw a line in the sand for how bad they're willing to be (even in an ostensibly family-friendly film like this one), especially considering that this flavor of heroism doesn't crop up in Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" series. As surprising as the turn is, and as viscerally satisfying as it is to see someone tell a Nazi to shove off (an especially gratifying feeling in the year of Our Lord 2022), this moment works entirely because of Paul Sorvino.

A low-key legend

Since Sorvino's passing was announced, many people have rightly memorialized him through his work in "Goodfellas," "Law & Order," and stage work in plays like "That Championship Season." Paul Sorvino was a peak character actor in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. This was not an actor who grew lazy or bored, who phoned in the work. To look at Sorvino in a film like "The Rocketeer" is to know that you are in capable, talented hands for as long as he's on screen. To see Eddie Valentine state plainly that he doesn't "work for no two-bit Nazi" is to get a brief sense of the sublime, because it's Paul Sorvino saying those words. It's a brilliant scene made classic thanks to an actor whose talent excelled beyond words.