IN SPACE! As the joke goes, that's the suffix that can be added to any lame movie formula to disguise its hokiness. Crime-solving cheerleaders—in space! Serial killer—in space! Pauly Shore vehicle—in space! Monster movie—in space! (Actually, that was Alien, and it worked pretty well.) To the list we can now add Matlock—in space! That's essentially the stratagem Clint Eastwood has not-so-winkingly adapted in his latest effort as director and star of populist fare. 1992's Oscar-nominated Unforgiven is a long way back now as his late career has turned toward fodder like The Bridges of Madison County, Absolute Power, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
directed by Clint Eastwood
with Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and James Cromwell
opens August 4 at Meridian, Metro, other theaters
Consistent with this trend, Space Cowboys is an in-flight paperback of a movie— something with a catchy cover and easily digestible plot. Which is: '50s flyboys get screwed over by NASA, hold a grudge, then come back to save the show four decades later. Age and experience win out over cocksure youth and treacherous bureaucrats. It's a story that many business-class flyers might indeed love, intended for the white males nearing—or past—retirement age who feel obsolete in our high-tech era.
Problem is, The Right Stuff told the first part of Cowboys' story better, and Apollo 13 similarly anticipates its final act. And Cowboys amply borrows from them both, to little avail. We meet our protagonists in a black-and-white 1958 prologue, where familiar voices emanate from the younger actors—and a CG-enhanced, dewrinkled Clint?—portraying our future cowboys. We meet them again in color, 42 years later, but only Frank (Eastwood) and his rival/buddy Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) have even partially developed characters. Donald Sutherland simply coasts on his '60s image, while James Garner does nothing but suggest how superior a movie The Rockford Files—in space! would've been. ("Angel, didn't I tell you not to steal the oxygen canisters?")
THE BAD GUY, played by James Cromwell (Babe), lies to our heroes, telling them they can fly his NASA shuttle to save a disabled Russian satellite launched—get this?—back in the pre-Gorbachev years, which can mean only one thing. That Eastwood and his hack writers don't understand everyone can immediately guess its secret shows how bogged down they became in Cowboys' interminable middle section, which basically reprises a bunch of astronaut training stuff we've all seen before, plus generous heapings of soap-opera plot staples (sudden love, terminal disease, young rivals).
After an hour and a quarter, we have lift-off, and Cowboys briefly shows some promise. Real NASA footage looks great on the big screen, and Eastwood deploys some CGI space panoramas to good effect. The Russian satellite turns out to be big, bad, and nasty—but what took so long to get there? Here's your movie! But having wasted so much time, Eastwood has to rush through what should've been the film's best sequences. (Back at mission control, Marcia Gay Harden is wasted in her part, while William Devane actually stands out from the cast by letting his performance show his peevish disgust with the proceedings.)
Unfortunately, these gravity-free set pieces come too late to save Cowboys from the weight of its own mediocrity. Eastwood doesn't have the sense to pull back the camera more often from our heroes' deeply lined faces (odd, given his background in Westerns). As a director, he convincingly conveys the real, imminent sense of mortality that the characters joke about, fear, then come to accept. As an actor, his best moments come alone, as when Frank looks down on the earth, breathes a little satisfied whew, and permits himself to smile (a major display, by Eastwood standards). Otherwise, the aged cowboys' derisive name for the space shuttle pretty much sums up the movie: flying brick.