- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

Frequently preposterous but reliably entertaining, "Space Cowboys" ingratiates itself by celebrating a quartet of space codgers: retired former test pilots played by Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner.
One of the inside jokes, of course, is that Mr. Jones, who gets the most valiant role when the chips are down, is a youngish ringer in this quartet. At 54, he would have been quite a prodigy if partnered in real life with the other old-timers because Mr. Garner is 72, Mr. Eastwood 70 and Mr. Sutherland 66.
According to a black-and-white prologue set in the late 1950s, they were once happy-go-lucky hotshots flying and crashing the X-2 rocket plane. The enmity of a commanding officer, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), who became a NASA administrator cost them a chance at serious consideration as astronauts when the space program was entrusted to a civilian agency.
A belated flight in the space shuttle is approved reluctantly by Mr. Cromwell's character, still a resentful thorn in heroic sides, when a Russian space station that suspiciously resembles Skylab heads toward orbital decay.
Supposedly, it requires emergency investigation, repair and salvage that only the retirees, known collectively as Team Daedalus, are capable of performing because of their peerless familiarity with "obsolete technology."
I'm glad the same scarcity doesn't apply to computers, or I might be unable to operate an old DOS system inside a Windows framework.
Be that as it may, Mr. Eastwood's Frank Corvin, Mr. Jones' Hawk Hawkins, Mr. Sutherland's Jerry O'Neil and Mr. Garner's Tank Sullivan get their shot at orbital flight.
Naturally, it turns out to be a mission perilous as well as improbable because Gerson is shielding information about the Russian satellite that would appear to be impossible to shield in an informed professional setting: It's an aging booby trap that could blow up in the face of the rescue team and then the planet.
It will remain a wonder to me why the risks couldn't have been acknowledged candidly in advance by the strangely evasive Gerson, who seems to be playing it cagey only for the benefit of slow-witted moviegoers.
Anyway, Mr. Eastwood and his cronies prove equal to the task of saving his job and the immediate future of countless earthlings. Their personalities and methods are vastly more appealing from start to finish than what we saw in "Armageddon" and "Mission to Mars," which inspired low opinions of NASA amateurs and then NASA pros.
"Space Cowboys" seems to thrive on a compromise: old pros swiftly mastering state-of-the-art flying machines.
"Space Cowboys" also may be the most sheerly enjoyable movie ever directed by Mr. Eastwood. He collected an Academy Award for "Unforgiven," of course, but that was a grimly prestigious undertaking, kind of a gothic Western. It's usual to find Mr. Eastwood at the helm of a movie with a fundamentally good-humored and optimistic outlook.
Until the climactic stages, "Space Cowboys" seems to sustain itself quite nicely on the comic rapport and interplay of the four leads while also benefiting smartly from an adept supporting cast: the nefarious Mr. Cromwell; Marcia Gay Harden as a demure mission director who falls for Mr. Jones; William Devane as a savvy flight director; Loren Dean and Courtney B. Vance as young astronauts also assigned to the mission, though not in roles as generously disposed to their skills and generation as I would prefer.
Once in peril together, the six men ought to be permitted a measure of heroic teamwork that cancels out previous estrangements or rivalries. That refinement fails the writers, although they do come up with a whale of a send-off for Hawk.
The movie sneaks up on you as an effective cliffhanger by emphasizing comic aspects until the finale, which generates more suspense and heroic distinction than you anticipate.
It's amusing to speculate about the demographics of this weekend's major attractions. Presumably, "Space Cowboys" will monopolize the middle-aged public and then filter down to younger customers more likely to be intrigued by the horror spectacle in "Hollow Man" or the prurient bombast in "Coyote Ugly."
Unless I miss my guess, the old guys are sitting pretty for the long haul and should be cruising along comfortably still as the summer season ends. Place your bets on Team Daedalus.

Three out of four stars
TITLE: "Space Cowboys"
RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity, graphic violence and comic vulgarity)
CREDITS: Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

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