69 – Space Cowboys

Take four elderly acting legends, add the space program (a good hot-button topic in the movies, as always), sprinkle in some action and romance (however unbelievable), and you have yourself the genesis of Space Cowboys, a movie that veers a little from broad comedy to gut-wrenching tension.

Frank (Clint Eastwood), Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry (Donald Sutherland), and Tank (James Garner) were supposed to be the first men in space in 1958, but they were screwed over by a petulant supervisor, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), in favor of a chimp. Imagine the slight! You’ve worked extra-special hard at your job for so long, preparing for a Great Big Important Job, only to have your promised position handed over to a monkey! You can see why Frank might be a tad upset over this.

More than 40 years later, the boys are long in the tooth and are doing just about anything but working for NASA. Frank’s enjoying retirement. Hawk is a cropdusting pilot. Jerry designs roller coasters. And Tank’s an ordained minister. Ah, but NASA needs them! Seems Russia has this old satellite orbiting Earth that’s going to fall to terra firma in about a month. And since it’s such an old beast, it has design plans that came from Skylab – which, conveniently, Frank designed. And, also conveniently, he’s the only one who can fix this satellite and bring it in safely, rather than have it crash to Earth. (Apparently, that would be bad. Don’t ask why.)

Bob Gerson reluctantly asks his old nemesis Frank to help him out, and Frank says he’ll fix the problem – but only if he can go up. Oh, and his team. Gerson agrees, and the Daedulus team – Frank, Hawk, Tank, and Jerry – train for their mission. Did I mention they’re really, really old? So you get your share of Ensure jokes and false-teeth hee-haws. Granted, it’s a one-joke premise, but it’s such a darn good one.

And the characters are fun, too. Hawk’s a devil-may-care tough guy, a persona Tommy Lee Jones has played many, many times. Frank’s a cranky old man, cantankerous and crotchety ,but a true leader. Jerry’s a womanizer – and my goodness, he’s gotta be over 70. Only the character of Tank seems a little less detailed than his compatriots, although I’m not sure if this is just slacker writing or an intention of the screenwriter.

The plot is a little predictable, and if you’ve seen any movies over the past 20 years or so, you’ll recognize a lot of twists before they become twists. See Armageddon, Deep Impact, Mission to Mars, and Red Planet for some ideas – or go into this one a little fresher, with wide-open eyes. Either way, you’ll be entertained. The four leads in this movie are a LOT of fun to watch, and if you’ve followed their careers at all, it’s a hoot to see how the actors have evolved since their early days. They have gone from iconoclasts of society to plaster icons (a phrase that was once used to describe The Beatles, only in reverse). Sutherland played a lot of rebellious sorts during the turbulent 1960s-1970s, and had achieved leading-man status by the time Klute came out in 1974; now he plays authority figures, such as in JFK and The Puppet Masters. Eastwood got his start with spaghetti Westerns, then shot to the bigger time as Dirty Harry – but he remains a tough guy, doesn’t he? Revered by society, but he still looks like he doesn’t give a damn. Garner went from Maverick and innocuous Doris Day movies to the tough but urbane stylings of Jim Rockford; now he plays dignified, intelligent characters. And Tommy Lee? Ok, so he’s still the barnstorming, hell-raising fool he’s always been. I didn’t even think he was old enough to be in this movie, although he sure had me convinced by the time the film was over.

In short, good solid fun.

Space Cowboys: 8

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