Cinema Signal:
. "Space Cowboys"

Here are four test pilots, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland) and Tank Sullivan (James Garner) who didn't make it into the space program 40 years ago, (echoing the true story of Chuck Yeager). By now, their stuff is old fashioned, bygone, traditional. In other words, not of much use to anyone. Until, that is, the guidance system on a dangerous Russian orbiter goes out of control -- a system originally designed by Lt. Corvin himself, one of these "old men" of pre-space times. Then, NASA and the Pentagon come a-callin'.

But, this metaphor has an interesting application to the film itself, and how it is constructed. Here we have a space picture where more than half of it is groundside. Plenty of time to, not only get acquainted with the characters, but to learn to love and care about them -- a very old fashioned concept. Leave it to that old timer, Clint Eastwood, who directed and produced, which is to say, had a lot to do with the story line.

When the team finally makes it into orbit, (echoing the true story of John Glenn) not only do they have a surprise waiting for them, and for the Houston crew on the ground, but you actually care about how it will affect them, despite the lack of space creatures, time shifts, inter-galactic badboys, and other space movie debris. It's a space movie, all right, but told in a traditional way, old fashioned, somewhat in keeping with the ageing actors involved. Why, this is as old-fashioned as "The Deadly Dozen."

The problem with the film is keeping the energy up and focused. Eastwood has a base hit here, not a home run. He makes good use of the ageing concept and of the charisma of his cast but, perhaps because of the number of them, the drama gets diluted. It is a challenge to present lead characters above 60 in a way that appeals to a wide audience. Here, they got it partly right.

Of the group, Tommy Lee Jones gets the medal and the space doughnut for being in the best shape physically (youngest?). Perhaps that's why he "gets the girl". In this case -- very much worthy of mention -- it's Marcia Gay Harden, whose sensitivity amidst the hard cases around her is a standout. Despite her awkwardly tacked on romantic fling with the cantankerous Hawkins (Jones), this actress conveys softness and empathy with her presence. Putting aside the contrivance of this episode, I appreciated her contribution to this movie, which is to represent all those who would be rooting for the good guys.

Another standout is the ever-dependable James Cromwell as Lieutenant Corvin's nemesis, the man who "wouldn't have him" at NASA. He is ace on, in a good, strong role. If the movie has a "villain", outside of the Russians, it's Cromwell's Bob Gerson, a study in arrogance.

I'd like to add one more positive note. The picture begins with the young versions of these men, and a better rendering of a young Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood could hardly be found. Good job of casting and pulling off a convincing continuity of character -- not an easy accomplishment in any age.

Finally, the digital space effects are exemplary -- worth the price of admission if you don't get a kick out of actors with sagging muscles and diminishing roles these days. That old storyteller, Clint Eastwood, still has some spunk left in his film cans.

Estimated cost: $65,000,000. Projected U.S. Boxoffice: $92,000,000.

Rated S, for Spatial.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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