Space Cowboys (2000)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Ken Kaufman & Howard Klausner
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar
There’s junk orbiting Space Cowboys, an adventure comedy so good on so many different levels and so pedestrian on the same number of levels. Ken Kaufman & Howard Klausner wrote the script on spec with Paul Newman & Robert Redford as casting notions before producer Andrew Lazar helped set the project up at Warner Bros. where Clint Eastwood went for it. What’s novel here — at least in relation to disaster movies like Deep Impact or Armageddon — is how all the familiar stoic mission recruitment moments, goofy training sequences or perilous space activity is handled by guys past their retest dates, relying on stuff beyond brawn to answer challenges. The ages of these characters afford some stellar casting opportunities as well, with Eastwood and his Kelly’s Heroes pal Donald Sutherland reuniting and shining among the cast.
The special effects (by Industrial Light & Magic and by WonderWorks), not only cut glass but move at just the right velocity, allowing the grandeur of men working in earth’s upper atmosphere to dance across the eyeballs. There’s a pertinent message here about seniors being left in the scrap yard like obsolete aircraft and how that rust can be shaken off. Space Cowboys gets off to wonderful start by introducing the characters as young men and catching up with them 40 years later, but then it coasts. The NASA sequences look shoddy, Tommy Lee Jones looks lost amid an ensemble (Jeff Bridges must not have been available) and the characters are surrendered to a plot about a Russian satellite. There’s no suspense and no question where this material is headed, but it’s well intentioned and well crafted enough to work while it’s playing.
In 1958 at Edwards Air Force Base, test pilots Major William Hawkins (Eli Craig) and Frank Corvin (Toby Stephens) must eject from their X-2 after “Hawk” pushed the jet to 110,000 feet. Their dreams of reaching the moon are scuttled by their boss Bob Gerson when a new agency called NASA is formed to assume upper atmosphere testing. 40 years later, an aging Russian communications satellite begins to fall out of orbit. Now a NASA project director, Gerson (James Cromwell) and engineer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) attempt to fix the glitch on behalf of the Russians by contacting Corvin (Clint Eastwood) — now four years past retirement age — whose guidance system design not only ended up on a Soviet satellite but has become so outdated, none of NASA’s engineers understand it.
Unwilling to allow the satellite to re-enter earth’s atmosphere for reasons he prefers not to disclose, Gerson is pressed by Corvin to send him and his original team into space to capture and repair the satellite. This includes Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) now a cropduster who hasn’t spoken to Corvin in 12 years, structural engineer Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) who’s blind as a bat but still the ladies man and Tank Sullivan (James Garner), a navigator who became a Baptist preacher. Compared to the MIT trained astronauts (Loren Dean, Courtney B. Vance) piloting the space shuttle, Team Daedalus is obsolete hardware, but Gerson’s plan to get rid of them backfires when the space cowboys become media darlings. Sent into space, the astronauts discover they’re dealing with a device far deadlier than a communications satellite.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 113 users: 79% for Space Cowboys
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 73 for Space Cowboys
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