Warner Bros. // 2000 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 3rd, 2007
In space, no one can hear the tell-tale timbre of incontinence.
What makes a real hero -- big muscles, fast cars, confounding contraptions and gadgets? Actually, if you listen to these guys, all that stuff is nothing but crap. Tools are only as good as those using them, and a ounce of experience, so they say, is worth far more than the buffed-up bravado boasts by youngsters. So when it comes to solving a matter that is older than the kids sitting in the control chairs today, sometimes you have to reach out and call a senior citizen to save your butt.
In 1958, a crack team of four jet pilots stands poised to make a first foray into outer space. They're passed over, though, replaced by a trained chimpanzee. This is a crushing blow to the four men who make up "Team Daedalus," who never realize their dreams of piloting a vehicle outside of the Earth's atmosphere. Especially distressed is Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven), the team's engineer, who seethes at the smugness of his superior, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell, The Nazi), a man that regularly frustrates the team's progress, alternately taking credit for their successes.
Four decades later, Corvin is enjoying retirement when NASA representatives visit his quiet desert home to ask his assistance in recovering a failed Russian satellite. None too happy to find Gerson still pulling the strings, Corvin refuses to help unless the whole of Team Daedalus is gathered -- designer Jerry O'Neil (Donald Sutherland, The Dirty Dozen), navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner, The Rockford Files), and pilot 'Hawk' Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive) -- and sent into space to perform the mission. But as this geriatric team of former greats work their creaking bodies into pre-flight conditioning, Corvin learns the Russian satellite is operating on the same programming that the engineer had originally designed for America's Skylab project.
Although Michael Bay's bombastic Armageddon did well for itself in 1998, and managed to coax over $200 million from the ADHD-afflicted audiences it catered to, it was nonetheless a caramel-coated, CGI-sugared, sub-standard sort of modern-day storytelling. Filmed with cameras that couldn't seem to sit still, nor could hold more than five seconds' worth of film at a time, some viewers wanted more from a space opera and sought out something that could offer something more challenging than an MTV mindset. Clint Eastwood, of all people, stepped up to the launch pad.
In a clever twist on the tired cliché that says younger astronauts are the most interesting folks to cast adrift, Eastwood decided old age and treachery should be offered up to save the Earth. Likely amused by the panic of the day known as the "Y2K bug," Eastwood wondered, via a script from Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, what might happen if an orbiting satellite from thirty years ago developed a glitch in its programming -- who today might know the code to properly intervene? Just as many erstwhile COBOL programmers stepped up to name their own price in delivering the world economy from a dreaded "9999" logic implosion, so too did Eastwood and his band of cronies write their own ticket into space when the young snots at NASA realized they couldn't decipher the hexadecimal hieroglyphics put into service long before they even began to download in their diapers. It was an apropos premise and, in the context of Space Cowboys, it struck a resonant chord with slightly more mature audiences of its day.
Ultimately, the film benefits from the presence of four veteran actors (well, three really, with Jones still being a bit spry for this collective) who readily and refreshingly embraced the reality of their age. I say "refreshing" in that the film not only serves as the foundation to launch numerous senior citizen quips and sight gags, but simultaneously backhands the Hollywood addiction to incompetent "young and pretty" faces posing as actors. Eastwood (70 at the time) and Garner (72) certainly look well traveled, their lined faces and sagging neck-waddles suggesting they're ready to be put out to pasture -- that is, except for their shared "don't bullshit me, Sonny" gaze. Sutherland (65) gives a decidedly creepy persona to his character of O'Neil, an older gentleman who is anything but when it comes to sniffing out and pursuing the younger members of the opposite sex. He leers at anything with breasts, and still shows how overactive a libido can be in a man's twilight years. Jones (the "baby" of the bunch at 54) seems a bit out of place, although his characteristically lined face serves as a fake ID to gain entry into this old boy's club. He strikes up a romance with a younger Marcia Gay Harden, a plot element that seems a bit contrived here and surely hearkens the similar heartbreak wedged into Armageddon, but it's nascent enough to forgive...or dismiss.
Although Space Cowboys isn't a hyperactive outing, it still smacks of silliness, but in a preferable manner that keeps it from becoming morose in its mission. As mentioned, there are plenty of "old man" jabs on tap, and you'll get a gander at the effects of gravity upon the mature male ass, but you'll also cheer these guys who readily slap the smug right off the young faces that confront and contradict them. Therefore, don't take it too seriously, and you'll have a good time.
An early high definition release from Warner Brothers, Space Cowboys comes to the Blu-ray format sporting a 1080p / MPEG-2 encode, differing from the VC-1 encode utilized for the alternative HD DVD release. Regardless, the image quality of this presentation, framed at 2.40:1, is largely impressive. Boosted by a visually solid source print, without noticeable damage or degradation, the picture quality is rich and deep. Detail levels are excellent, occasionally a bit soft by way of the source itself yet crisp and clear for the majority of the run time. The color palette is warm and well saturated without any instances of bleeding. The only noticeable problem is that of posterization during the blue-tinted retro sequences. Beyond this, the transfer is more than competent.
On the audio side, the enhanced Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (640kbps) is equivalent to the same Dolby Digital Plus track found on the HD DVD disc. Don't expect much activity from the intentionally undersized soundstage during the first two-thirds of the picture, although dialog is clear and well managed in respect to the score and a few ambient effects. When it comes time to venture into the star-spangled darkness outside the Earth's atmosphere, the soundstage widens noticeably, and the surround channels and the all-important LFE channel leap into action.
Extras on this Blu-ray offering match those previously included in 2001's standard definition DVD. That said, you'll find three featurettes, including the 28-minute Back at the Ranch, the 7-minute The Effects, and the 7-minute Up Close with the Editor. The best extra, however, is the 11-minute Tonight on Leno, where the complete faux talk show appearance by Team Daedalus can be found. The original theatrical trailer wraps up the bonus features.
Although it certainly would have dampened the lighthearted spirit of the film, there's no denying the missed opportunity of not pursuing the sordid details behind the potential treason purported by Bob Gerson. He clearly knows plenty about the Russians' acquisition of the Skylab programming for their own satellite. There's a definite familiarity that passes between Gerson and General Vostov, the sort that thinly veils a shared disingenuousness. In fact, there's a payoff that never materializes, that being a final standoff where Corvin should rightly and righteously tear the conniving Gerson a new one. It never happens, but it's not a critical omission to the overall scope of the film's narrative.
Although it has aged nearly another decade since its theatrical release, Space Cowboys still stands its ground and holds its own among similarly themed adventure outings. The veteran actors are the real draw here, and it's easy to identify with and applaud their work. The best news is that you won't feel the need to take a nap afterwards, thanks to the picture's steady but sure pacing.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Documentary: Back at the Ranch
* Featurette: The Effects
* Featurette: Up Close with the Editor
* Extended scene: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
* Theatrical Trailer