Space Cowboys

Friday August 4, 2000

     It's called "Space Cowboys," but it ought to be "Space Codgers." The story of a quartet of "Leisure World aviators" who want to prove they won't be old and in the way in outer space, this is a mostly genial film that gets as much mileage as it can out of the undeniable charisma of its stars. Like many charmers, it involves us against our better judgment, but only for a while.
     That "Space Cowboys' " shenanigans engage us as much as they do is a credit to the skill and good-old-boy camaraderie of Clint Eastwood (who also directed), Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner. Between them, they have more than 150 years of screen experience, and the creation of a lightly likable guy movie ambience is comfortably within their range.
     It's also pleasant to see a movie where--shall we say--mature stars work with, instead of trying to hide, their age. The Ken Kaufman & Howard Klausner script includes numerous "The Ripe Stuff" references to bad eyes, false teeth and friends who have died. Where Eastwood's characters once said things like "Go ahead, make my day," he now mutters, "I've got Medicaid, take your best shot" when ruffians cross his path.
     "Space Cowboys," however, squanders its assets. Though its basic ancients-in-orbit premise is sound enough (John Glenn was older than anyone on screen when he last went into space), the Kaufman-Klausner script (the first screen credit for both) fritters away the goodwill its actors accumulate on a meandering, contrived, haphazard scenario. Even Eastwood's classicist directing style can't do much with that.
     The film opens with an extended black-and-white flashback to 1958, with younger versions of the leads playing the hottest Air Force test pilots of their day, breaking records, looking longingly at the distant moon and vowing, "That's where we're going."
     But fate was not kind to this Team Daedalus crew. Partly due to the antics of Hawk Hawkins (Jones), the designated "crazy son of a bitch" with a proclivity for crashing planes and pushing situations to the limit, when NASA took over the space program from the Air Force, the Daedalus bunch found itself out in the cold as regards travel into the great beyond--as did real-life prototype Chuck Yeager.
     Cut to a crisis in the present day. Ikon, a venerable Russian communications satellite, is showing signs of faltering, and because of warnings that its loss could plunge that country into civil war, the U.S., in the form of arrogant NASA Administrator Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), says it will do all it can to repair the ship's ailing guidance system.
     What NASA mission director Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) discovers, however, upsets Gerson's equilibrium. The Russian satellite has the same internal structure as America's 1969 Skylab, a system designed by Gerson's sworn nemesis and former Team Daedalus pilot Frank Corvin, played by Eastwood.
     No actor, with the possible exception of Paul Newman, has aged better on film than Eastwood, who turned 70 in May and whose lined and weathered face makes Mt. Rushmore look like the Pillsbury Doughboy. When his disgruntled Corvin snaps, "What the hell is my guidance system doing on a Russian satellite?" even Vladimir Putin would be disconcerted.
     It's also passably amusing to follow Corvin as he rounds up his old team: Tank Sullivan (Garner) is now a Baptist minister, Jerry O'Neill (Sutherland) designs roller coasters and chases younger women, while Hawkins, whom Corvin hasn't spoken to in 12 years, seems to make a living just by being irascible.
     Still eager for that ultimate flight and still behaving, if the truth be told, like kids who couldn't or wouldn't grow up, the Daedalus crew all appreciate Corvin's plan, which is to force old enemy Gerson to send them into space as the only team that knows enough about the outmoded system to fix it in the short time available.
     That plot strand is fine as far as it goes, but it soon gets overwhelmed by more conventional and badly handled considerations.
     Deciding it needs a little romance, "Space Cowboys" concocts love scenes between Jones and Harden that are painfully awkward.
     Things get even worse on the mission, when the whole tone of the film changes and confusing and unconvincing jeopardy situations hijack the proceedings. Even star power can get lost in space.

Space Cowboys, 2000. PG-13, for some language. Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures/Clipsal Films, a Malpaso Production and Mad Chance Production, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar. Executive producer Tom Rooker. Screenplay Ken Kaufman & Howard Klausner. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Costumes Deborah Hopper. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack G. Taylor Jr. Set decorator Richard Goddard. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Clint Eastwood as Frank Corvin. Tommy Lee Jones as Hawk Hawkins. Donald Sutherland as Jerry O'Neill. James Garner as Tank Sullivan. James Cromwell as Bob Gerson. Marcia Gay Harden as Sara Holland.

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