Space Cowboys is the latest geriatric male fantasy film from Clint Eastwood. Now 70, he seems increasingly desperate to prove that old men are still relevant -- nay, indispensable -- to the modern world.
This message isn't what makes the film bad. It's the desperation behind it.
Eastwood stars alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner as ex-air force pilots who reunite 40 years after they were replaced by a chimp (a female chimp, no less) in their quest to travel into space.
They get a second chance when a Soviet communications satellite goes on the blink. Only this band of balding superheroes know how to repair the satellite's antiquated technology, so they get to gloat their way back into NASA and embark on a race against time.
Rocket launch Everything about the film can be predicted from this set-up. There will be jolly one-upmanship between the stars. There will be conflicts with authority. There will be training sequences, a rocket launch and problem after problem that can only be solved by the sage wisdom of the elders.
Fortunately, sometimes it pays to give the audience what it expects. The sparring is quite fun to watch, even if it milks every male-rivalry cliche in the book.
The clashes with authority are less amusing. How many times do we have to hear Eastwood's character criticized for not being a team player? Why do the old men get to have the last smartass remark in every conversation? Why must everyone and everything that threatens them -- youth, technology, complicated rules and procedures -- be proven wrong?
The answer points to the film's greatest flaw -- these men are not allowed to have any flaws. Sure, they show a few quaint signs of aging, like Sutherland's bad eyesight and false teeth, but nothing that keeps them from doing what they want.
Locker room Their virility is also never in question. When NASA engineer Sarah Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) stumbles on Tommy Lee Jones naked in the locker room, she blushes like a teenager and agrees to a date. Clearly, we're supposed to believe she was overpowered by physical attraction to his 54-year-old ass.
But the wisdom of the elders is absolute. Even when they take stupid, unnecessary risks, these men cannot fail. There's an uncomfortable scene in which Jones's character takes a flight simulator off auto-pilot so he can land the plane in bad weather himself. In real life this kind of hubris got JFK Jr. killed, but in Eastwood's fantasy world, Jones is a hero.
Telling sign A telling sign of Eastwood's paranoia is that the enemy in Space Cowboys isn't the Russians or the NASA brass. The real menace to society turns out to be a young, well-educated man who follows orders (Mumford's Loren Dean).
On a more superficial note, the film has a flat, uninspired look. The space scenes contain no memorable images, and the special effects are workmanlike at best.
Eastwood apparently prefers shooting models of spacecraft over computer-generated graphics. I suppose his quest to stay relevant has to end somewhere.
SPACE COWBOYS, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, produced by Eastwood, with Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, James Cromwell and Marcia Gay Harden. 125 minutes. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (August 4). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: N