Warner Bros. // 2000 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // November 7th, 2006
Space will never be the same.
Never in a million years would I think that a film where the four stars' combined age would make a respectable bowling score could gross almost $100 million, but in this case, Donald Sutherland (65 at the time of the film's theatrical release) James Garner (72), relative newborn Tommy Lee Jones (a virginal 54) and director/co-star Clint Eastwood (70) struck lightning in a bottle with Space Cowboys in 2000. Is it any better in high definition?
Written by Ken Kaufman (Curious George) and Howard Klausner, Space Cowboys introduces us to Frank Corvin (Eastwood, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), who was head of Team Daedalus in 1958, an expert test-flying group whose members include "Hawk" Hawkins (Jones, The Fugitive, Men in Black), a pilot who frequently competes with Frank in contests to determine the most courageous, Tank Sullivan (Garner, Murphy's Romance, Grand Prix) is the navigator, and Jerry O'Neil (Sutherland, Without Limits, Kelly's Heroes) is the engineer and ladies man of the group. After a test where Frank and Hawk have to ditch yet another plane and waste millions of dollars, their boss, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell, Babe, The Green Mile), decides to leave them out of a then-blossoming space program called NASA. Frank feels that Hawk is to blame for this incident, and the two decide to distance themselves for each other for years afterwards.
Fast forward four decades to a Russian satellite that is breaking down and has a decaying orbit, and will fall to Earth piece by piece. And no one in the current NASA hierarchy has the foggiest idea of the satellite's guidance system or technology, but for reasons that become known later, the satellite has to be tended to, so Frank and his crew are called into action one last time.
First things first, OK? The premise behind Space Cowboys is silly, maybe even beyond silly. It's Grumpy Old Men in an anti-gravity test for a couple of hours. And I think that the actors involved know that to some extent, but God bless 'em, they know this and still manage to collectively pull off a convincing performance so you overlook how illogical the story is.
And like any other film where the implausible happens, there are some training/montage scenes to poke fun at their age, so you're going to get enough shots of them here. Naked fannies while they're being checked for hernias? Yeah, you'll see that here, along with them working out and getting physically prepared for the rigors of space next to their younger crewmates Roger (Courtney B. Vance, Law and Order: Criminal Intent) and Ethan (Loren Dean, formerly of Mumford, but recently of whichever dentist it was that capped his teeth). But Roger serves as the barometer for how the actors do in the roles. He sees them and mocks and ridicules, but after noticing that they can hold their own technically, gives them some more leeway and respect. And as a viewer, you're supposed to suspend disbelief, and the fact that these guys can make this a remotely credible journey helps out quite a bit too.
The last time I'd seen this film was in high definition on a cable station that shall remain nameless, and while I didn't watch the whole thing, it certainly looked good. The 1080p transfer that the film sports is pretty solid, though you can really tell the contrast in the last act of the film (read: the space scenes that ILM did for the picture). The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack brings a lot more to the table than I anticipated, and early on when the film's flashback scene has a jet roaring through the picture is a good barometer of how this sounds. And yet when the shuttle does take off, it's dynamic without being a floor-rattler, so it certainly knows when to ease off the throttle.
One thing that doesn't really fall into the "annoyance" or "frustration" category, but is a little bit of a grievance, if you will, is that Eastwood isn't necessarily a video-friendly director at this point in time. There are a few quick featurettes that discuss the story, and cover such longtime Eastwood crew members like Joel Cox (editor on Eastwood films since The Gauntlet), Jack Green (cinematographer on most of Eastwood films since Every Which Way But Loose) and Henry Bumstead (production designer on many recent Eastwood films and art director on films such as The Sting and Vertigo). More Clint, more often!
The one part of the film that has always managed to get under my skin after several viewings is the romantic storyline between Hawk and NASA Officer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock, American Dreamz). Now, the relationship is neither good nor bad, but in this film just isn't really necessary, and serves as more of an excuse to have an emotional involvement for other viewers when quite frankly watching three grandpas go up in a rocket can be emotional enough.
With tongue in cheek, Space Cowboys provides enough charming and funny moments to overcome a story with a pretty implausible theory, and unlike other space disaster films that were released around the same time, it doesn't take itself that seriously, and realizes that the best moments in the film will probably come from the actors more than the explosions. It's not a demo disc, but if you've got the standard definition version, feel free to upgrade.
Space Cowboys is cleared for takeoff and found not guilty, despite Kaufman and Klausner's story. Bring in the next case.
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* On Location with Cast, Crew and NASA Consultants
* Meet Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Owens and his Collaborators
* Expanded Version of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Sequence
* A Conversation with Editor Joel Cox
* Official Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* NASA Homepage