Clint Eastwood, now 70 years old, has been conducting a rueful analysis of the male aging process for years, using himself as specimen. The killer who comes out of retirement for one last hit in ”Unforgiven,” the emeritus jewel thief planning one last heist in ”Absolute Power,” the disillusioned journalist energized by one last life or death investigation in ”True Crime” — they’re all existentially solo men trying to settle accounts in their AARP years.
In Space Cowboys, which Eastwood also directed and produced, he brings along a posse of other squinty old men with whom to compare equipment. And the company does the star good, even though the movie’s arthritic plot does not. Eastwood plays Frank Corvin, who in 1958 was part of a team of Air Force test pilots with the right stuff but the wrong attitude, sidelined from space exploration in favor of more manageable team players.
Now, 40 years later, a retired Corvin is called in by his former NASA bosses to do what younger, more up to date minds apparently cannot: assist the U.S.’s post-Cold War Russian allies by fixing a Soviet satellite still using an antiquated guidance system Corvin himself designed. The obsolete flyboy agrees to help out only if he can hitch a ride to the work site on the space shuttle and take three of his fellow Air Force golden agers along. The lucky geezers in helmets are played by James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones.
”Space Cowboys” is poorly engineered: lurchingly paced, the dramatic conflicts duct taped together. And the screws only loosen further in a pointless detour regarding some farfetched Cold War type hanky panky. But in distributing the bodily betrayals and spiritual triumphs that mark diminished masculine vigor among four such different old men (and four such different old pro actors), Eastwood is able to share the vulnerability (and a few jokes) rather than act his usual high plains drifter self.
With Sutherland (who pleasantly waggles his dentures) assuming the role of an incorrigible horndog and Jones as a widower romancing the kind of younger woman (Marcia Gay Harden) the filmmaker might have previously requisitioned for himself, Eastwood’s Corvin actually assays married life with a (sexy) ”senior” wife (Barbara Babcock); he also lightly acknowledges his own mortal flesh. (For a cheap laugh, the four wrinkled amigos stand naked during a physical, their shopworn butts braving our scrutiny.)
”I don’t know how to break this to you. You’re an old man,” a flinty NASA bureaucrat (James Cromwell) tells Corvin. Yet cinematographer Jack N. Green lights the faces of these durable movie stars so handsomely, the men fly in an ageless orbit all their own, free from ”Space Cowboy”’s gravitational pull to nowhere.