[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Imagine an Armageddon where, instead of oil-rigger roughnecks, the fate of the world rests on four geriatric, long since retired Air Force test pilots. That’s the plot in a nutshell: a failing Russian satellite running on an archaic American guidance system must get back to full capacity, and the only man capable of correcting it is flinty former Air Force officer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood).
His decades-old grudge against a NASA bureaucrat (James Cromwell) flares to full burn and inspires him to a brilliant bit of blackmail: he’ll help, but only if he and his 1958 flight team man the shuttle themselves. Forty years after they were cheated out of their space shot, Frank’s posse is ready to ride out of the atmosphere … as long as they can keep up with NASA’s young hotshots.
This leads to the expected round of jocular humor and old codger gags (which Clint, with a face more mummified than wrinkled, can pull off with little more than a raised eyebrow and a curled lip) and a rekindling of the ridiculous macho chest-thumping competition between Frank and his cocky old daredevil buddy Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones). Also along for the ride are Tank (James Garner), now an absentminded minister, and Jerry (Donald Sutherland), a structural engineer who builds rollercoasters by day and charms sweet young things by night.
Eastwood the director segues nicely from the jogging pace of the training sessions to the ramped-up, adrenaline-pumped thrill of the space adventure, where all the whispered conspiracies are revealed in a (hardly surprising) world-threatening twist. With all the Hollywood hardware he could want at his disposal, Eastwood pauses only briefly for a bit awed reverence at the majesty of space, then doggedly downplays special effects to focus on teamwork, professionalism, and the seat-of-the-pants improvisation of Air Force cowboys and barnstorming veterans.
There’s something satisfying in Eastwood’s take on the techno-overkill space adventure, wiping it clean of trumped-up patriotism and attempting to clear out clumsy subplots and hackneyed conspiracies like the clutter they are. His solution to the latter, however, is to simply ignore clichéd complications until they simply fizzle out or drop with an anticlimactic thud, and while his storytelling remains clean and sleek, his skills at building tension are slipping. He can’t quite move an audience to the edge of their seats.
Then again, Space Cowboys isn’t just one of Jerry Bruckheimer’s thrilling but hollow rollercoaster rides. Clint’s lean narrative mechanics could use a little well-placed flash and techno sparkle, but he still knows how to tell a story and sell a character. I guess there’s something grizzled old codgers like Clint can teach those young hotshots after all.