With an iconic status formed by long, successful acting careers, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland need do very little onscreen to establish a character — and, as a filmmaker, Eastwood takes advantage of their larger-than-life personas to flesh out Space Cowboys. This fearsome foursome may be older, but they have lost very little of their charm, charisma and stamina, and in this tale of geriatric comeuppance, they easily blow men half their age off the screen.
In 1958, Frank Corvin (Eastwood), Hawk Hawkins (Jones), Tank Sullivan (Garner) and Jerry O’Neill (Sutherland) were Air Force test pilots ready to push the known boundaries of speed. But instead of joining the space race, they found themselves grounded. A black-and-white flashback establishes their rule-busting cockiness as well as the intense rivalry between Frank and Hawk (in a surreal juxtaposition, the familiar gruff voices of Eastwood and Jones come out of the mouths of baby-faced daredevil pilots).
So when NASA shows up at Corvin’s door many years later, asking for help with an ailing Russian satellite which is running on a guidance system he designed during the heated days of the Cold War, Frank cuts a deal. He’ll aid their recovery mission only if he’s joined by the other former members of Team Daedalus. Considering that they weren’t dubbed Team Icarus, they get the reluctant go-ahead from their detested former commander (James Cromwell), a NASA bigwig and the epitome of a slimy, self-serving bureaucrat.
There are few surprises in this comfortably familiar entertainment directed by Clint Eastwood, whose recent films (Absolute Power, True Crime) show him to be merely resting on his laurels. Screenwriters Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner pepper the dialogue with plenty of quips about senior citizens in space, which these seasoned veterans turn into a friendly, combative banter that only highlights their essential vitality and vigor.
Space Cowboys is one of the few films which trumpets experience over reckless youth, and that alone makes it a decidedly different summer movie: a kinder, gentler Armageddon for the AARP crowd.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.