Space Cowboys, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, has so predictable a premise that there’s really no reason to actually see the movie. You can sit back and imagine what it would be like and probably get just about the same results – maybe, one hopes, better. The premise, made joshingly explicit in the movie, is The Right Stuff meets The Ripe Stuff: Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner play ex-Air Force test pilots from the glory days of the fifties who finally get their chance to go into space on a mission. A chimp edged them out for outer-atmospheric-testing honors back in 1958, when nasa took over the space program, and now it’s payback time. The nasa bureaucrat (James Cromwell) who once screwed them is urgently implored by the Russians to repair one of their broken orbiting satellites which otherwise will cause a total communications blackout in their country. Since the satellite has the same guidance system as the American satellite Skylab, Eastwood’s Frank Corvin, who designed Skylab and is apparently the one person in the universe qualified to do the job, blackmails his old nasa nemesis into also bringing along his flight buddies for the repairs. Who would have thought we would be seeing a movie in which Clint Eastwood risked his neck rescuing the Russkies? Ah, but even that plot point has its predictable twist.
The film is one of those over-the-hill-gang buddyfests that pretend to be about teamwork and valor but are really about movie-star cronyism. Watching these actors appear together in the film as astronauts with Jay Leno isn’t all that different from watching many of the same actors appear as themselves promoting the movie with Jay Leno. The charitable way to look at all this is that Eastwood and Co. are winking at us; we are nudged to believe that they are playing themselves. The film comes across like an action fantasy for old coots; when these actors groan and squint during their nasa physicals, we’re supposed to laugh, sympathetically, at the famous men doing the groaning and squinting. (Some are longer in the tooth than others.) Eastwood, in his recent movies, has been pushing this aarp worldview, and I suppose it’s a more genial solution to the problem of being an aging action-movie star than having Arnold Schwarzenegger obliviously muscle his way through yet another splatter epic, or having Sylvester Stallone, in Cop Land, go all pot-bellied and Methody. But Eastwood buys off too much for too little. Shouldn’t the moment when the guys finally get their up-close glimpse of the universe be a transcendent one? In Space Cowboys, they might as well be ushers in a planetarium.