SPACE COWBOYS ^ -OR- ^ GRUMPY OLD SPACE MEN ^ If nothing else, “Space Cowboys” proves that “Armageddon” would have been a much better movie if Clint Eastwood had directed it. As in that movie, NASA is faced with a crisis that has both a time limit and a requirement for outside expertise. There’s just not enough time to train current astronauts so a cantankerous outsider and his drinking buddies will have to go up into space. ^
This time around, the crisis is an old Russian “communications” satellite with a decaying orbit. For some reason, the Russians don’t want it to fall into the atmosphere and it’s too big to be brought down by a space shuttle. For much the same reasons, it mysteriously has the exact same guidance system as the American Spacelab. Apparently, the only person capable of fixing it is the original American designer, retired Col. Frank Corvin (Eastwood). Corvin, however, refuses to go without the company of his old pals from Project Dædalus. This was the Air Force’s space project prior to the formation of NASA. The four pilots assigned to this team, Corvin, Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Sullivan (James Garner), and O’Nell (Donald Sutherland) were a little free-spirited and hard on the test planes, so they were bitterly left behind as Astronauts when NASA initiated the Mercury program.
Payback’s a bitch though, when Corvin gets the chance to shove his aging pals down the throat of former superior and nemesis, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). If they can only learn to work again as a team, they might pull this off. However, the actual mission may not quite work out as planned.
There are a few problems. The script isn’t the greatest. While Eastwood, Garner, and even Sutherland are about the correct age, Jones is at least 15 years shy of that mark. Despite these issues, “Space Cowboys” turns out to be a very entertaining movie.
First, ILM produced some of the best space scenes I’ve ever seen in any film. Second, although Eastwood’s Corvin is the mission commander, this a really an ensemble film, and much of the joy is in watching four very experienced, charismatic actors work together. Jones actually has the showier part as the wild pilot, and he makes the most of it in a very soulful performance. It nearly wipes away the taint of his last couple of films. Eastwood is his usual self, and should be commended for acquiring this cast and giving them the room to do their stuff.
The movie bears the message that the elderly still have much to contribute. In the new age of the teen film, the cast seems to communicate a similar message about some of the older actors around Los Angeles and what they can bring to the big Hollywood action film. In this movie, charm and personality are able to overwhelm the inherent silliness of the situation and the characters. Really, can you ask much more of your grandparents?