Senior citizens typically don't get much respect in contemporary Hollywood. Except for Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Woody Allen and a handful of others, oldsters are largely relegated to the sidelines in mainstream features. They're practically invisible in the recent flood of teen comedies and romances. Even worse, members of the over-60 set, are the butt of vulgar, sometimes mean humor in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and the gross-out films made by the Farrellys and their ilk.
Clint Eastwood, remarkably fit and trim at 70, offers a kinder and gentler portrait of those in his age group with "Space Cowboys," a seriocomic romp that has the director co-starring with Tommy Lee Jones (53), James Garner (72) and Donald Sutherland (66). A derivative concoction that's equal parts buddy picture and outer-space thriller, the film can be thought of as a variation on the Matthau/Lemmon "Grumpy Old Men" series, with the number of title characters doubled and elements borrowed from "My Fellow Americans," "The Right Stuff" and "From the Earth to the Moon."
The old codgers' eventual destination -- space -- is telegraphed early on, during a black-and-white prologue set in 1958. Frank Corvin (Eastwood) and Hawk Hawkins (Jones), half of an elite Air Force unit named Team Daedalus, are flying high in the sky when Hawkins stares out at the heavens and makes this declaration: "That's where we're going. I don't know how. I don't know when."
Moments later, they're forced to parachute out of the shattering $4 million plane.
Old pledges die hard. But circumstances -- like NASA's co-opting of the space program and the simple passage of time -- conspire to keep the old sound-barrier-breakers earthbound.
Flash forward four decades: Corvin is consigned to an uneventful retirement, which he spends puttering around his ranch-style home with his wife of many years (Barbara Babcock). Hawkins, recently widowed, gets his kicks spooking the life out of anyone who's willing to pay for a death-defying stunt flight. Jerry O'Neill (Sutherland), the astrophysicist of the bunch, is a structural engineer who devotes much of his time to overseeing roller-coaster development and flirting with the ladies. And Tank Sullivan (Garner), once a navigator, is now a bumbling Baptist preacher known for rapidly losing his concentration when delivering sermons on Old Testament genealogy passages.
The guys get a second chance at glory thanks to an international crisis that's playing out in space. An old Russian satellite, equipped with technology similar to Skylab's, is malfunctioning and will shortly crash unless it's repaired on site by Corvin, the only living engineer who's familiar with the workings of the spacecraft. The reluctant astronaut cuts a deal with his double-crossing former boss, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), now a key NASA administrator. The upshot: The men of Team Daedalus are reunited, and recruited for the flight of their lives.
The premise of "Space Cowboys," of course, is preposterous on numerous levels. And the pacing of the movie, particularly its first half, is downright leisurely. But the launch sequence and the outer-space segments are as polished and realistic-looking as we have a right to expect. And it's a pleasure watching these macho-talking old pals -- screen veterans all -- engage in games of one-upmanship, flirtatiousness and, in the end, heroism.
Generation Y, by the way, is practically invisible in "Space Cowboys." And it isn't missed in the least.