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Space Cowboys   C

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Ken Kaufman, Howard Klausner
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, James Cromwell, Marcia Gay Harden, Loren Dean, Courtney B. Vance.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Captain's Log Stardate 6051: had trouble sleeping last night... my hiatal hernia is acting up again. The ship is drafty and damp; I complain, but nobody listens."
--"Star Trek XII: So Very Tired," from The Simpsons

Space Cowboys doesn't so much embrace high concept as get dragged behind it kicking and screaming. It takes its central premise -- old guys in outer space -- and subjugates every other consideration beneath it: plausibility, story, pacing, script. The project doubtless started when some producer saw John Glenn's recent voyage on the space shuttle, and if one old man was good enough for reality, then four should just about suffice for a big-budget Hollywood film. Thus, high concept was born, and woe be to anything that gets in its way.

The question becomes how to get those four up there and why...which presumably forms a plot you can hang the movie on. Much of Space Cowboy concerns itself with that question, and with maneuvering less-than-successfully through the issues it raises. First of all, you have to assume that no one else can do the job -- otherwise, they'd send up a younger crew. So the screenwriters produce a malfunctioning ex-Soviet satellite whose technology predates most engineering schools. The satellite is coming down and for some sinister-yet-unexplained reason, the Powers That Be (represented by James Cromwell) don't want that to happen. So NASA calls the engineer who designed the malfunctioning system (Clint Eastwood, who also directs) for help. He'll do it, but only on the condition that he and his old flight team (Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland) can fly up and fix the problem themselves. No one else understands the system and besides, his gang has always wanted to go to space.

That "what the heck, let's do it" factor provides the film with its strongest elements, but also undermines it on too many levels. The best parts of Space Cowboys can be found in the well-preserved charm of its central cast. These guys have been making movies long enough know how to entertain the audience. Eastwood's naturalistic direction has always favored the actor, and this quartet of old smoothies jumps at the opportunity. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the script gives them all of the best lines, but they're clearly having a blast as old coots showing the young whippersnappers how it's done. It's enjoyable for a time just to watch James Garner deliver laid-back quips or Tommy Lee Jones bark matter-of-factly about... well, anything.

But aging star power can't go on forever, and eventually, the holes in the plot start to creep in. It's tough believing that only these four guys can do the job, and while Space Cowboys bends over backwards to convince us, it never really holds water. If we need to hear as many explanations as they give us, we're not going to believe that this is the best plan. While the script labors hard to sell its premise, it loses track of most of the other elements in the process. The direction displays a curious lack of tension as well, despite its polished professionalism. We never get the feeling that the crisis really matters, or that failure of the mission has any consequences. There's an awkward romantic subplot which never really takes off and some shaggy-dog scheming between Cromwell and his Russian counterpart that meanders along without much tension. The climax shows a certain panache, but loses all credibility with its utter ludicrousness. Eastwood is too good a director to let it go completely to pot, but it's hard to get excited when you're snickering at the preposterousness of it all.

Most movies along these lines walk a balance between accuracy and entertainment. Space Cowboys worries more about its central premise than anything else, which ends up costing it both accuracy and entertainment. If you're interested in watching some great old actors having fun, it might be worth your time, but they've been just as charming in better movies. Space Cowboys just doesn't have the punch to compliment their skills.

Review published 08.04.2000.

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