Trust Clint Eastwood to step up to the challenge of directing a space-based action-adventure flick after such moronic sci-fi efforts as Armageddon and Battlefield Earth. While Eastwood’s Space Cowboys does not represent filmic perfection, it is a consistently engaging and humorous dramedy with congenial characters, and at no point does it descend into the sheer idiocy which has plagued other outer space endeavours. Not to mention, with the cast including such seasoned, charismatic pros as Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner, Space Cowboys was destined to be great. One must admit, though, a pseudo sci-fi movie is a curious entry to Eastwood’s filmography. During his long, prolific career as an actor, producer and director, Eastwood has dipped his hand into countless genres, from westerns to comedies to war movies. Before Space Cowboys, though, he had never ventured into outer space, nor had he been allotted such a generous special effects budget before.

In 1958, the four men of Team Daedalus – Frank Corvin (Eastwood), Hawk Hawkins (Jones), Tank Sullivan (Garner) and Jerry O’Neill (Sutherland) – were the best that the American Air Force had to offer, and the guys were shaping up to be the first Americans in space. However, the government disbanded the team upon the establishment of NASA, and project leader Bob Gerson (Cromwell) replaced the hopefuls with a chimpanzee. The narrative then fast-forwards to the late 1990s, when a Russian communication satellite begins to lose altitude and threatens to plummet to Earth. NASA agrees to help the Soviets repair the satellite, but it is equipped with a dated guidance system from the ’60s that the NASA engineers cannot understand. Unfortunately for Gerson (who’s still working at NASA forty years on), his only hope is to recruit the brains behind the guidance system: Frank Corvin, now a senior citizen. Frank only agrees to help on one condition: that he and the other guys from the former Team Daedalus be sent into space to repair the satellite.

A light-hearted, feel-good movie, Space Cowboys is a solid home run. First and foremost, it is a very entertaining and enjoyable piece of action-adventure fluff with an interesting story that at no point stalls due to unnecessary exposition. While the premise behind the film could have led to some bad comedy, director Eastwood handled the affair with a deft hand. By endowing every character – even the supporting roles – with strong personalities, witty humour flows out of their interactions without the film descending into silly self-parody at any point. Even more surprisingly, Eastwood and his writers took the story past base comedy to include moments of drama and tragedy, and it works.

The majority of Space Cowboys is devoted to the set-up, which was a smart decision. Before the characters are sent off into space and thus into the possibility of peril, we are given the opportunity to genuinely get to know the guys and grow to like them, warts and all. Action movies work best if we care about the characters in the midst of the maelstrom, and Eastwood understood this. With that said, though, there are a few clichéd fragments of the storytelling that could have easily been excised, such as an obligatory barroom brawl as a result of the clichéd hostility between Frank and Hawk. This barely matters, though, since the sense of fun never wanes. And once the action shifts into outer space, the film is gripping.

Those expecting Space Cowboys to incorporate aliens, space warfare and large-scale action scenes in space should look for entertainment elsewhere – watch Independence Day again. Eastwood’s film is closer in tone to Apollo 13 due to it being a low-key space adventure with patient, unhurried pacing. Space Cowboys also shows that such a film can be intense and nail-biting if something goes wrong, and that is precisely what happens to fuel the movie’s climactic segments. Superficially, the film is somewhat similar to 1998’s Armageddon; a loud, blatantly stupid outer-space adventure wherein a bunch of oddball characters are sent into space to save the world from ruin. Where Space Cowboys surpasses the earlier picture is in its quieter tone, more likeable characters, and a firm refusal to become an overblown blockbuster. Sure, it will probably be easy for physics professors to find faults with the science behind Space Cowboys, but for the rest of us it’s easy to enjoy the movie without over-thinking it. It helps that the visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic are stunning, and effortlessly hold up over a decade later without ever looking distractingly phoney.

Most of the fun of Space Cowboys is derived from watching the leads in their autumnal years playing geriatric space jockeys. All four of the protagonists possess high levels of viewer identification and comfort, and we can easily learn to like these guys and enjoy being in their company for over two hours. Eastwood even refused to think with his ego, and did not just give himself all of the best script material. Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland all score most of the laughs and get a large majority of the one-liners, and Jones is the one who gets the girl. The sense of camaraderie within the group and the chemistry they share is more tangible and charming than most ensemble movies that movie-goers are succumbed to on a frequent basis. Even the supporting characters are outstanding here – such actors as James Cromwell, Marcia Gay Harden and William Devane brought their “A” game to the table here; coming across as wholly convincing without overdoing it.

Curmudgeons and cynical movie-goers could probably find a lot to complain about in Space Cowboys since the storytelling cannot escape clichés, the film does take liberties with science, and there’s an unmistakable Hollywood vibe throughout (including a rather predictable ending). Yet, all of this stuff adds up to a fun time, and the joy of Space Cowboys is spending quality time with a bunch of charismatic old actors who work well together and score easy laughs. With an engaging story, a handful of humorous moments, a pulse-pounding climax, and a heart-warming outlook on life, Space Cowboys is top-notch family-friendly filmmaking.

7.9/10