If you've gotten this far into this week's Entertainer, you probably already know the answers to this pop quiz below; but try to imagine if you had been asked at the beginning of the year to predict the answers:
- 1. Who directed 2000's best special effects-laden spaceman adventure?
- a. Steven Spielberg
- b. George Lucas
- c. James Cameron
- d. Clint Eastwood.
- 2. The cast of said science fiction yarn features which of the following casts?
- a. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Claire Danes, and Tae Diggs
- b. Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, and Giovanni Ribisi
- c. Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner
- d. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy... (Oh, okay, maybe old duffers in space HAS been done -- but this time, they not only admit their age, they embrace it.)
The answers, of course, are d and c; but what you might not have learned from watching trailers for "Space Cowboys," is that it is not merely a Grumpy Old Astronauts comedy, but a rousing adventure thriller, as well.
In fact, this first ever Summer-special-effects-extravaganza to be aimed at the Social Security set is 2 hours and 9 minutes of pure moviegoing pleasure, as -- both in the story, and on the screen -- a group of old pros show how it should be done: with a sharp script, no over reliance on digital effects, and even respect for the laws of physics.
Eastwood plays Dr. Frank Corvin, an ex-Air Force test pilot who quit after his team of would be astronauts was replaced by a monkey (an inside joke here from the star of "Every Which Way but Loose," perhaps?). Corvin is called by his one time boss and nemesis, Bob Gerson, who now heads NASA, to fix the antiquated guidance system on a satellite whose orbit is decaying.
The catch is, that it is a Russian satellite, put up during the Cold War powered by the system that Corvin designed for Skylab. With time running out, NASA has to concede to letting Corvin go up in the Space Shuttle in John Glenn fashion. But since he has both Gerson and NASA over a barrel, Corvin insists that his former team go with him.
They are: Colonel Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), who now gives thrill rides in a stunt biplane; Jerry O'Neil (Donald Sutherland), now a lecherous -- and near sighted -- roller coaster designer; and Tank Sullivan (James Garner) who has become a Baptist preacher.
The movie follows not one, but two standard formulas -- the recruiting of the old veteran and his team to take on the Big Mission, and the Training For The Big Mission routine. However, in the impossibly charming hands of these terrific actors, and the amiable and witty script by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, these scenes are anything but routine.
But aside from the old codger jokes (my favorite was the centrifuge face lift), "Space Cowboys" also has a genuine sense of wonder at the prospect of space travel, and we begin to really care that these guys realize their dreams.
Once they do, however, a fair amount of danger awaits. Eastwood adeptly switches tone to a macho -- but still witty -- adventure in the style of Howard Hawks "Rio Bravo," or John Sturges' "The Great Escape." The selfish dreams of adventure give way to a last call to duty for a band of old soldiers who refuse to just fade away.
"Space Cowboys" doesn't push any envelopes, but it does nearly everything exceedingly well. In fact, it is an old-fashioned movie in the best sense of the expression. Much like "Return to Me" earlier this year, the fact that the situation is contrived in the extreme and reworks a fair amount of cliched material won't bother you a bit, because of the amount of good will Eastwood and company generate.
Go along for the ride with these cowboys, you'll be glad you did.