"The Ripe Stuff," is what the newspapers called them when word leaked out
about their secret assignment. Four old codgers, who left the space program
40 years ago -- when NASA chose a monkey over a man to go into space first
-- they are back for a quickly prepared mission to rescue an important
satellite that will burn up soon on reentry if they don't get it back into
If it hadn't been for John Glenn's recent space flight at age 77, the plot
might seem completely ridiculous. Instead, the script makes the old team's
goal and flight seem remarkably plausible. After all, the ailing, ancient
satellite's guidance system was designed by Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood),
and no one still at NASA knows how to fix it anymore.
Frank's only condition is that he gets to go into space to repair it and
that he takes with him his old team: Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Tank
Sullivan (James Garner) and Jerry O'Nell (Donald Sutherland). Setting out a
condition that he figures is unobtainable, Frank's hated ex-boss and current
NASA project leader, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), demands that the four pass
all of the astronaut tests for physical stamina. (These "geriatric"
astronauts are supposed to be about 69, but you'll notice that in real-life
Jones is a good bit younger at 53. But with his usual weathered look, Jones
convincingly plays a senior citizen.)
Beautifully directed by Eastwood, the movie has two distinct parts. The
first half is an inviting and good-spirited comedy, that is deliciously
underplayed and that rarely dissolves into slapstick. The second half is an
exhilarating action drama set in space.
Just watching these old actors work together is worth the price of
admission. They have a blast, and we're there with them cheering them on.
The brightly written script by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner successfully
creates four unique lead characters. Frank (Eastwood) is the team's cocky
leader. He's a take-no-guff kind of guy. "I've got Medicare," he says,
picking a fight with an unsavory younger guy at a bar. "Go ahead, take your
Ethan Glance, played in a one-note performance by Loren Dean (MUMFORD), is
the hot-shot new astronaut sent to recruit Frank. "Dr. Corvin, your country
needs you," Ethan argues. "Put a sock in it, Sonny!" Frank shoots back.
The tension between them doesn't ease up during training. "Excuse me, I
hold 2 Masters degrees from MIT," Ethan tells Frank, when Frank ignores his
advice. "Maybe you should try to get your money back!" Frank retorts with a
classic Eastwood sneer that would melt steel.
Jerry (Sutherland) is a "babe magnet," and a roller-coaster designer, who
likes to tweak his coasters himself. With coke-bottle lenses, he has to
cheat his way through the astronaut's eye exam. The four's creative fudging
supplies many of the best laughs. There is also a fatalistic humor in that
everyone they ask about seems to have died.
Rivaling Eastwood for the movie's best performance is Tommy Lee Jones, as
daredevil pilot Hawk. Hawk spends his days taking up college kids in
loop-the-loops certain to make them puke. No one can fly a plane as well as
Hawk, but there's been bad blood between Frank and Hawk for 40 years now.
In the least developed role, James Garner plays Tank, a Baptist preacher.
Tank, the group's navigator, can't even find his way through his own
There are lots of subplots, including a romance between Hawk and a NASA
engineer (Marcia Gay Harden), and most of them work quite well without
needlessly complicating the story.
The film's special effects are quite credible. Looking authentic but not
overly glamorous, they nicely compliment the story rather than dominating
What a wonderful contrast this movie makes with typical movie fare these
days. Rather than having another in our weekly releases of bad-to-mediocre
teen comedies, we have an intelligent and funny picture featuring people who
have real acting experience that's measured in decades, not years.
Let's hope that this starts a trend away from bad movies, whose only claim
to fame is their demographics, and toward good films with experienced,
really experienced, actors. It's probably too much to hope for. After all,
we've raised a generation who thinks that all movies end in a prom sequence,
and that all jokes must involve crude references to some bodily fluid.
SPACE COWBOYS runs 2:00. It is rated PG-13 for some language and would be
fine for kids around 9 and up. It is also a good movie to take multiple
generations to see. My parents and my son are planning on seeing it
together this weekend with us. It's the kind of film that it's fun to view
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes