Space Cowboys

While watching “Space Cowboys,” I kept trying to figure out which was older: the combined age of the stars or the jokes they’re forced to tell.

“Space Cowboys” is one of those movies that flies solely on the charms of its cast, and even they aren’t enough to keep this gossamer from sinking like a lead weight.

The stars look as tired as the vehicle they’re trapped in, an Edsel of an epic about four geriatric pilots who get to realize their unfulfilled dreams when they are sent into space to repair an old Russian satellite.

spacecowboysphoto1It sounds like a good idea, one that probably got an immediate green light when director-star Clint Eastwood recruited Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner to play his fly boys. Unfortunately, writers Ken Kaugman and Howard Klausner fail to do anything with the material except the obvious. It’s sad watching the stars go through the motions when they deserve much better.

As director, Eastwood doesn’t help matters. Everything is paint-by-numbers, which serves the script but not the film nor the actors. You never feel that these four men are lifelong friends, but high priced actors playing out expensive fantasies. Don’t blame the actors except for trusting the writer and director to deliver more than this

Not only is the script flat, it’s barely serviceable. The writers waste way too much time on the ground when the real action and adventure is out in space. After spending more than half the film on cheap shot old age jokes and every astronaut training cliche known to man, “Space Cowboys” finally gains a little altitude when the men blast into space.

Their mission is to repair an ancient Russian communications satellite before it renters the atmosphere and burns up. The only person who can save the day is Frank Corvin (Eastwood), a former pilot who invented the propulsion system that controls the satellite. Since time is of the essence, NASA doesn’t have time to train one of their own to fix the satellite.

That means Frank is their guy. There’s just one problem. He’s still upset at being passed over for the U.S. Space Program back in the fifties, so Frank uses the opportunity to get his buddies into space, much to the chagrin of the young flight crew. That means rounding them up, putting them through the rigorous training program and putting up with harassment over their age.

All of this would have been enjoyable had we not seen it before, most recently in “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” This territory has been covered so much it’s becoming a cliche. No one did it better than director Philip Kaufman in “The Right Stuff.” These scenes are supposed to be funny because the men are so mature, yet the jokes fall flat for that very reason. It’s stupid to think that these men would act like little boys during their physical examination.

Since the film is mostly about hitting marks, there’s very little in the way of character development. Perhaps that is why Eastwood carefully picked his cast. He knew we would instantly warm up to Jones, Sutherland and Garner. By ignoring everything else like logic and emotion, he sets them and us up for the big chill.

The chill begins early with a major miscalculation. The film opens with a black and white prelude set in 1958 that introduces us to the characters as young men. While their resemblance is adequate enough to convey who they are, Eastwood completely ruins the illusion by dubbing over their voices with the older actors. It’s a creepy attempt at instant recognition that backfires.

If the script wasn’t so predictable, the film could have been enjoyable. The writers always tip their hat, telegraphing every plot point long before the characters get there. There are no surprises here, just expectations. Of course one of the astronauts is going to find out that he’s sick, but not before he finds true love. Of course the young bucks will get shown up by the seniors, who will then have to come to their rescue. Of course the superior who screwed them back in the 1950’s will resurface to do the same in the present.

The four leads are fine, even if their characters aren’t. Eastwood stands tall as the pilot who doesn’t take chances, while Tommy Lee Jones seems suited to the role of Hawk Hawkins, someone who sees taking chances as a way of life. The two play off each other well, and even manage to connect on occasion. Garner is fine as the laid back friend who finds peace as a man of the cloth, but still yearns to play in the heavens.

Sutherland’s character is the only one that seems out of place. His Jerry O’Neill is like a mature version of the characters he played in the late sixties and early seventies in films like “Kelly’s Heroes” and “M*A*S*H.” It’s out of place here, even though Sutherland gives it the old college try.

The rest of the cast is one-dimensional, especially James Cromwell as the devious superior hiding a secret and William Devane as a gum smacking flight director. Marcia Gay Harden looks horrible in her page boy haircut, saddled with the task of playing the last minute love interest of the doomed astronaut. Barbara Babcock fares much better as Frank’s comfortable wife.

A lot of time and effort goes into making a film like “Space Cowboys.” It takes months, sometimes years to bring special effects projects like this to the screen. Why then, during all that time, didn’t someone sit down and read the script out loud? Maybe they did and thought the cast would be enough of a distraction.

They were wrong.

THE WRONG STUFFSpace Cowboys grounded by weightless screenplay


Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, James Cromwell, Marcia Gay Harden, William Devane, Courtney B. Vance, Loren Dean. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated PG-13. 123 Minutes.


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