In the fall of 1998, U.S. Senator John Glenn made a historic trip aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, marking his return to space - albeit deeper and for a longer duration - some thirty-six years after his first venture around the Earth. Not only was that a great publicity stunt for NASA, but it also proved that "senior" citizens could continue to contribute to and participate in important events.
The downside, of course, is that now the AARP will probably start lobbying for more such activities for its members, wishing to allow them to do things normally no longer associated with their age bracket, such as playing little league baseball and inhabiting the sort of 'Home Alone" roles once played by the likes of Macaulay Culkin
All kidding aside, many would love to follow Glenn's example instead and take a trip into the stars, but that's not likely to happen for them (or pretty much anyone else for that matter). In lieu of that, however, they can vicariously experience such an experience while watching Clint Eastwood and his small team of older Hollywood talent as they pretend to do the same in "Space Cowboys." Reportedly made in conjunction with NASA and marking Eastwood's 22nd time behind the camera, the film could - and probably should have - been subtitled, "Armageddon AARP."
That's not only due to the similarities in script and "Rah-rah" enthusiasm for the space agency, but also because of the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief needed to buy into what occurs, just as was the case with that Bruce Willis/Jerry Bruckheimer "let's destroy the asteroid" movie.
It certainly follows the cue of that film (as well as the similarly plotted "Deep Impact") where astronauts save Earth from an inexorably approaching, outer space menace. As such, it's filled with more than its share of absurdities that the viewer most overlook and/or overcome to enjoy the proceedings and that easily could have been remedied with a few changes to the script.
For starters, we're asked to believe that NASA would allow not one, but four senior citizens to travel into space. Worse yet, they have just 30 days not only to figure out how to repair the disabled satellite, but also how to operate the space shuttle and prepare for the rigors of working in the weightlessness of outer space.
When Senator Glenn went up, he was titled as a payload specialist and while he had certain duties to perform, he was there more as a participating observer rather than a leader of the mission. He certainly didn't pilot the shuttle, yet here we're supposed to believe that the two current and experienced astronauts here are literally forced into the backseat for the mission. I don't think so. I'd also rather doubt that NASA would forgo having a cosmonaut on board (especially considering later, initially hidden plot developments) mainly to read the foreign wording that would inevitably be found on such a Russian bird.
Of course, the crew has the time to fly to L.A. for the obligatory cinematic appearance on "The Tonight Show," so who knows, maybe they had already brushed up on their Russian. Those certainly aren't the only problems, and one that will probably throw some viewers for a loop is Eastwood's decision to cast young actors to play versions of his and his crew's characters back in 1958.
While that's not a bad idea since having them attempt to play themselves as they were forty years ago clearly wouldn't work (as was the case in "Rules of Engagement" where Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson returned to 'Nam looking the way they do today), the problem stems from his decision to dub his and the other well-known actors' voices overtop the lips of those young actors. Not only is that visually unsettling, but it also unintentionally gives the film the look and feel of a cheap, foreign dubbed flick.
More major faults come from the fact that the script's plot unfolds in a predictable, if herky-jerky fashion and that the villains are nothing more than one-dimensional "meanies." Perhaps that shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering that the only writing credit between scribes Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner is the flop, "Muppets From Space."
As the film's captain - so to speak - Eastwood ("True Crime," "Unforgiven") often doesn't help matters as his direction is occasionally all over the board, focusing more on the comedy than in creating realism or palatable and well-staged suspense. The standard for such films is obviously the spectacular "Apollo 13" and the Tom Hanks inspired HBO miniseries, "From Earth to the Moon." Unfortunately, this one doesn't even come close to the quality and degree of credibility found in those productions regarding either the training and preparation or specific crisis that develop once in flight.
In fact, this film nearly could have been called "Grumpy Old Men in Space" since much of the material and resultant comedy stems from the older astronauts' behavior and reactions to each other and all of those young whippersnappers and every naysayer and doubting Thomas they encounter. While the shenanigans don't reach the same exaggerated level found in those Lemmon & Matthau films, it's the same basic concept (old codgers can be hip or at least cute and amusing while trying to do so). Yet, it's that basic material, along with the cast and their interaction with one another, that collectively make it somewhat easier to forgive the film's problems.
Featuring a great cast of older generation performers, the film should obviously play well to that demographic that's probably grown tired of and/or felt left out of all the films made for or starring people who certainly weren't anywhere near being around when Glenn made his first historic mission. Despite what amounts to some convoluted action that finally crops up in the films' third act, it's probably a good thing that the film stays grounded for most of its initial eighty minutes or so.
That's because the sheer presence and chemistry between the likes of Eastwood ("True Crime," "Absolute Power"), Tommy Lee Jones ("Rules of Engagement," "Double Jeopardy"), Donald Sutherland ("A Time To Kill," "JFK") and James Garner ("Maverick," TV's "Rockford Files") works best on the ground and not in some increasingly unbelievable sci-fi/action yarn.
You could probably put these charismatic and experienced performers into the worst piece of cinematic trash and still have fun watching it, simply due to their way of making something out of nothing. That's especially true for Garner and Sutherland since Eastwood and Jones get the meatier parts, and the former take some shallowly set-up characteristics and get a lot more mileage out of them than most others would be capable of doing.
While Eastwood and Jones play their mostly standard persona parts (although Jones gets softened up a bit with a romantic subplot) and milk their highly expressive, yet stone-faced expressions for all they are worth, the rest of the cast members and their characters - save for Marcia Gay Harden ("Meet Joe Black," "Desperate Measures") as the Mission Director with a sweet spot for Jones -- clearly fall into their imposing, collective shadow.
Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell ("Babe," "L.A. Confidential") simply can't do anything with his poorly developed, one-dimensional character, while William Devane ("The Hollow Man," "Payback") is so lackluster as the flight director that you keep wanting Ed Harris to come back (he had the same position in "Apollo 13") so that he could have another shot at nabbing that Best Supporting Actor statuette. Meanwhile, and just like their characters, Loren Dean ("Mumford," "Enemy of the State") and Courtney B. Vance ("Cookie's Fortune," "The Preacher's Wife") take the back seat to their older counterparts and don't make much noise.
While it's a distinct possibility that many critics will steal the byline - "The Ripe Stuff" -- from a newspaper appearing in the film and use it as their own, the film isn't rotten throughout and the "ripe" performers certainly make it relatively easy enough to sit through. It's just too bad that the script reeks like it does. Although many accuse the old of being forgetful, it's obvious that everyone involved here forgot to read the script and/or notice its glaring problems and deficiencies. Had they done so, the result probably would have been far better than what appears on the screen. As it stands and mainly due to the presence of the great cast, "Space Cowboys" rates as a 5 out of 10.