Space Cowboys

If you’re going to make a movie in which old guys played by Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland all go into space as astronauts, you’ve got the potential for a very entertaining film. Those are four charismatic, likable guys, and one of the basic laws of comedy is that old guys doing stuff = funny.

But then, if you’re going to underuse the immensely endearing Garner, drag out the film with a silly Cold War subplot, and borrow too much from — heaven help us if filmmakers are actually borrowing from this — “Armageddon,” well, then you’ve got trouble.

And that’s “Space Cowboys” in a nutshell: extremely funny and charming (thanks to the inspired casting) for an hour or so; a little bumpy after that.

Our four heroes were Team Daedalus, military pilots being trained to go into space — until 1958, when they were replaced with a monkey, who went up instead, thanks to the doings of their affably nefarious boss, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell).

Now, in the present, there’s a Russian communications satellite that needs repair, and the only person who understands its archaic design is the man who designed it: Daedalus team member Frank Corvin (Eastwood), now retired and refusing to read the instructions on his automatic garage-door opener.

Still bitter at Gerson for bumping them from the space program, Corvin tells him he’ll fix the satellite — but only if he and his old teammates get to go up in space to do it themselves. Having no choice (this satellite is apparently VERY important), Gerson agrees.

Corvin rounds up the old posse. There’s Tank Sullivan (Garner), formerly the navigator and now a Baptist minister; Jerry O’Neil (Sutherland), the structural engineer who now designs rollercoasters and chases after women (he’s the one who DOESN’T cover himself when a lady doctor walks in the room during a physical exam); and William “Hawk” Hawkins (Jones), a great aviator who now takes kids on crop-duster joyrides and who was Corvin’s competitive rival.

It’s all absurd, of course. Gerson agrees to the ridiculous plan far too readily, and all four team members commit themselves with equally daft swiftness. And you know what? I don’t care. Just watching Eastwood, Jones, Garner and Sutherland be who they are is entertainment enough for me, I don’t care how stupid their activities are.

And so it’s gently paced and often quite funny for a while, a breezy, easy-going comedy. When they go into space, though, it starts to get heavy, and the preposterousness of the situation settles in. As with “Armageddon,” when it’s played for laughs, we can accept whatever implausibilities are thrown our way. When we’re supposed to take it seriously, then we expect the movie to straighten up its act and give us something we can be serious about. This does not happen.

“Space Cowboys” manages to shun cliches even while embracing them. There is the standard scene of the Houston control room bursting into applause at the success of a certain mission — but it doesn’t have the triumphant music we’re normally assaulted with. And when snot-nosed young astronaut Ethan Glance (Loren Dean) gives Corvin the standard movie line, “Your country needs you!,” he responds with the non-standard, “Put a sock in it, Sonny.” (You can practically hear Eastwood sneering, “Don’t use that kind of cliche in MY movie, punk.”)

There is much potential with the cast, story idea and director (Eastwood himself, who definitely has a keen sense of what makes a good film). Much of that potential is realized, and if you overlook the mistakes the film makes, and don’t mind the last 20 minutes that seem way too long and anti-climactic, you do indeed wind up with a feel-good success.

B (; PG-13, brief non-sexual nudity, frequent mild profanities, mild innuendo.)