Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:09 - Released 8/4/00

The idea for Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, about four aging astronauts who are given another chance to break the surly bonds of Earth, may have come from Mercury astronaut John Glenn's recent return to space; in fact, Glenn's trip is even mentioned in the script. Director Eastwood has chosen wisely in casting a well-known quartet of action-hero actors (himself included) to fill the leading roles; however, despite good casting (and good acting, for that matter) and a credible premise, Space Cowboys barely rises above the mediocre level thanks to an unfortunate screenplay full of plot holes and unrealistic dialogue, written by Ken Kaufman (Muppets From Space) and Howard Klausner (his debut). The film tries to achieve the level of The Right Stuff or the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon, and the effects and stunning Earth-from-space photography help a lot, but story-wise, what emerges is something more akin to Armageddon: technical mumbo-jumbo, slick-but-inexplicable action sequences, and a trite romantic subplot.

Frank Corvin (Eastwood) is one of the four surviving members of the 1950's pre-NASA astronaut team Daedalus. Although he has long since retired, he is called on by his old colleague (and enemy) Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), who is now an administrator at NASA, because an antique Russian satellite is about to crash to Earth thanks to a glitch in its navigation system. Since Frank designed the system, whose technical specs predate today's computerized equivalents, he is needed to advise the crew of the top secret recovery shuttle mission, who, although they hold multiple engineering degrees from M.I.T., can't figure it out. See, that's what comes of letting kids use calculators on their final exams.

Frank agrees, but only if he can take along his old Daedalus buddies, "Hawk" Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), "Tank" Sullivan (James Garner), and Jerry "No Cool Nickname" O'Nell (Donald Sutherland), who are all happily retired but decide to go along anyway. No reason is given as to why this group of geriatric former envelope-pushers is needed on the mission, as Frank is the only one with special expertise, but they are all approved, along with two young upstarts (Loren Dean, promoted from his desk job in Apollo 13, and Courtney B. Vance). With only a month of training, Hawk learns to fly the shuttle (while the two experienced pilots sit in the back seat and say "you can't do that" over and over), Tank learns to operate the robotic arm (apparently that's his only job), and Jerry learns how to schmooze babes.

The first two thirds of the film yield some funny situations, like the part where Sutherland tries to hide the fact that he is unable to keep his dentures in place, but when the shuttle mission finally gets underway, nearly an hour and a half into the film, the humor dries up and gives way to spectacular space scenery and action sequences designed to obfuscate the lack of script integrity. The old astronauts bicker with the young astronauts. The American space agency guys bicker with the Russian space agency guy. William Devane plays the mission director like some sort of hardass comic book character, and the romantic angle, which involves Marcia Gay Harden as a NASA exec reduced to the role of a lovesick schoolgirl, is cloying, not to mention superfluous.

I'm not saying it's a bad movie, it's just that it could have been a tighter, more intelligent film with a little more careful scriptwriting and a little more vigilance by Eastwood. He's relying on star power and effects to cover for an irresponsible script, and the result is a disappointing film not worthy of the actors playing in it. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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