The good news about Space Cowboys is that Clint Eastwood proves to be a skilled comedic director. The bad news is that only the first half of the movie is a comedy - the second half is a sloppy attempt at a heart-pounding, Apollo 13ish, mission-gone-haywire space drama that's vague, oversimplified and unbelievable. There's a gem of an entertaining movie somewhere in there, but it's never fully realized.
The plot is solid high concept. If you did a double-take when you first heard that John Glenn would return to space, you'll love the basic premise of Ken Kaufman's and Howard Klausner's script - four daring, old Air Force codgers weasel their way back into NASA's space shuttle program to attempt an equipment repair mission that only they know how to perform. Our movie visions of strapping, young astronauts (Dennis Quaid, Bill Paxton, Ben Affleck, to name a few) are smashed once we see an aging James Garner pull on an airtight suit.
The man behind the idea is Eastwood's Frank Corvin, a brilliant Top Gun style troublemaker from the '50s who's bitter about his exclusion during NASA's inception. Once he pushes his unlikely proposal through the space program, Corvin travels the South collecting his old flyboy buddies - Tommy Lee Jones as the hard-headed Hawk, a widower who takes unsuspecting thrill seekers on wild flights; Donald Sutherland as smooth ladies' man Jerry, a roller coaster engineer completely unfazed by negative Gs; and Garner as the humble Tank, an old navigator turned pastor. Meeting each of these guys in their natural habitat is a real comedic treat, as Corvin's first mission of convincing them all to join is a fun combination of Armageddon and The Blues Brothers. And these four actors are seasoned to the point of marinade, so they've got no trouble digging in and getting the laughs.
When the movie stays light, dealing broad laughs and poking fun at maturity and ageism, it's easy to suspend disbelief. At times, when the movie jumps ahead without much substance, or the characters seem a bit too cookie-cutter, it's still passable and enjoyable. But when the quartet finally jump on the space shuttle, Space Cowboys dive bombs, becoming just a tepid drama.
From that point, Eastwood shoots for wide-eyed amazement from the audience (hell, we've seen space walks since Kubrick did it more than 30 years ago), and all the forgivable weaknesses become glaring. The well-timed laughs of the first half become childish, predictable dialogue. William Devane, as a funny, wise-ass, gum-smacking flight director, turns into a cheap imitation of Ed Harris' Apollo 13 character, bellowing lines into space like "Attaboy Frank!" Cut to worried, underdeveloped wife character. Cut back to grimacing, troubled Eastwood. Oh boy.
There's no denying, though, that it is a roar seeing these guys get sent through the ringer at NASA. And it is refreshing to see a movie who's youngest lead actor is 54. But aside from the consistent laughs, there's a lot missing. There's a chance to see these men contemplate the paths of their interesting lives. There's the opportunity to learn more about the families behind them. And there's even more that could've been done about respect of an older generation, and the fact that mistakes and lessons can be learned at any age. Instead, it's all generally ignored as Space Cowboys opts for an easier, less demanding path.
The brutal truth is that this movie was over for me once these guys hit space. The characters lose their energetic charm and begin to pale. The plot becomes wildly unbelievable but asks to be taken seriously. The longer the movie progressed, the lower my admiration. There's a better Space Cowboys than this two-part, 129-minute version - one where an entire 90-minute film is just about four funny, respected men reliving their former glory, blasting off to space in the finale, riding into the sunset and out of sight.