Space Cowboys (2000)

D: Clint Eastwood
S: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner

At its best when poking affectionate fun at the advancing years of its stars while simultaneously celebrating their charisma, at its worst when trying to manufacture conflict and jeopardy to up the stakes at the climax, Clint Eastwood's first foray into outer space action is one of his more lightweight films, but it offers some rewards if you don't take it too seriously. The plot follows the adventures of four veteran USAF pilots who find themselves bumped from the space programme with the foundation of NASA in 1958. Some forty years later, when an aging Russian satellite threatens to crash on earth, no one is qualified to stop it except them because of their inside knowledge of what is now obsolete technology. Reluctantly, they are accepted as astronauts and prepare for the mission, not realising everything that is going on behind closed doors. This irresistible premise provides Eastwood with a good vehicle for his usual brand of semi-rebellious heroism and also allows him to address questions about his own advancing years without tarnishing his image. It also lets Donald Sutherland and James Garner do something similar as actors, and though Tommy Lee Jones finds himself somewhat prematurely in their company, with this central cast the film becomes a semi-serious blow for roles for older men in mainstream cinema. It is not Wild Strawberries or These Foolish Things now (it is actually more like Armageddon meets El Dorado with a touch of The Shootist), but there is a strong sense of a polemical sub-text worked through it which actually works far better than the straight action/adventure elements.

The weaknesses are all in the script. Screenwriters Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner have cooked up a delightful set up and play the age card to the hilt. They are careful enough to emphasise the point that despite their age in years, the characters are acting like boys (cowboys?) in many ways, and thus without humiliating their stars (Waking Ned) are able to find ways to have fun with them. The film is enjoyable while it breezes along though the comic and semi-comic scenes which chart the team's reunion and retraining while also quietly laying out some sub-plots which we presume are going to bear fruit when things get more serious. Though there is not a clear division between segments, there is a point at which the action begins to make less sense though. When the boys go into space, the action doesn't quite match the build up, and some confusing storytelling doesn't help. There are abrupt twists and a surfeit of unexplained technological crises. There is also a bit of clumsy antagonism between Eastwood and Loren Dean which comes to replace some early bristling between he and Jones. When the action should really be getting more intense, it becomes dull. Meanwhile on earth a carefully set up conspiracy sub-plot with James Cromwell fizzles out with some hamfisted dialogue scenes and as the film builds towards what is intended to be a moment of emotional drama along the lines of that which befell Tim Robbins in Mission to Mars, nary a tear is shed because the script has literally lost the plot. It feels as if it has been artificially rushed, and Eastwood's usual measured pace is abandoned. Uncharacteristically, he fails as director to mount an effective set of crisis scenes to bring about a satisfactory resolution. Instead the film trails off with an uninvolving wrap up and a strangely cold final scene, leaving the viewer more confused and disappointed than need be.

Still, as I said, there are rewards. The strengths of the film are completely in the performances. Eastwood allows himself to be gently nudged closer to his age (after attempting to deny it in the likes of Absolute Power) while still retaining his edge as a believable insider-outsider, at odds with the system yet still within it. Canny casting by Phillys Huffman has Toby Stephens serve as an acceptable stand-in for Clint in the 1958 scenes, and the man himself is relaxed but far from lethargic in his part. Sutherland is terrifically enjoyable as the most libidinous member of the team (re-united with Eastwood for the first time since Kelly's Heroes), and has some priceless moments of cheerful insanity throughout. Garner is given a little less space than might have been welcome, but is always a pleasure to watch at any age, and Jones takes a slightly more laid-back approach than usual but is equally effective. Though the relationships between characters are never believable on a dramatic level (romantic sub-plots are grafted on more for the sake of it than anything else and the female characters don't work at all), the ensemble work is fun to watch. The film doesn't condescend to the characters even though it makes familiar jokes at their expense, and the actors respond well to the affectionate ribbing. Even though the finale reeks of genre clichés about duty and friendship, one tends to let it go simply because it is difficult to resist seeing the stars go all the way. It doesn't quite excuse the serious flaws in the script and structure, but it makes the film bearable to the end.

Space Cowboys is disappointing in many ways. It is certainly a failure on a dramatic level, and yet it is not quite a straight comedy either. Eastwood has had a habit of jumping from serious to lightweight material for some time now, and though this film offered the possibility of bridging the gap between the two, it finally ends up not quite either. Casual audiences will probably enjoy most of it, although they shouldn't be too surprised when it doesn't measure up to Armageddon for brain-dead pyrotechnics or Apollo 13 for tension. With its redneck bar-fight scene, its semi-swaggering hero, and its focus on a group of characters rather than an individual, there is a touch of the Howard Hawks about it, but it is not quite as polished and effective as that. It is worth seeing if you have even a shred of affection for the stars, but it is not one of Clint's better movies all the same and perhaps is better in concept than in execution.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.