He directs and stars in “Space Cowboys,” a comedy adventure about a former team of fighter-pilot aces, now pushing 70, sent into space to repair a Russian satellite that is more decrepit than they are.
This is the stuff of geezer comedy, and throughout the middle section of the movie, it is a superior example of this rather worn-out genre. There’s a lot more going on, however, with some real pros — including Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner — who know how to bring it off.
As “Space Cowboys” progresses from comedy to adventure to fable about settling old grudges, Eastwood does something amazing. He not only sidesteps the trap of turning himself into an old fool, he reasserts himself as the movie icon audiences for decades have come to expect.
He might not like to hear it, but it’s a lovely thing to see.
It’s taken until August, but “Space Cowboys” can now lay claim to the title of best movie of the summer. It is Eastwood’s most satisfying film since “Unforgiven” in 1992.
“Space Cowboys” begins, like the careers of most of its stars, in black and white. It is 1958 at an Air Force test range. In a sequence with some whiz-bang aerial photography, the lifelong rivalry of pilots Frank Corvin and “Hawk” Hawkins has already begun.
It picks up decades later when old Frank (Eastwood), comfortably retired but “proficient in obsolete technology,” is recruited by NASA to repair a little glitch in a ’50s-era Russian communications satellite that could plunge into the atmosphere. Although obstinately never a team player himself, Frank rounds up the remaining members of the former team — the old samurai.
The setup is surely a spin-off from Sen. John Glenn’s becoming, at age 77, the orbiting oldster. In a joke about Medicare, Frank’s age is revealed as 69. Eastwood, who is 70, Garner, 72, and Sutherland, 66, play their real ages, or thereabouts.
Jones is 53 but crinkly enough to make it work. As Frank’s rival, Hawk, he gets the funniest introductory scene, as a barnstorming crop- duster pilot who now takes thrill- seeking teenagers for a ride. Jones also gets to deliver, and does with aplomb, the grace-under-pressure lines, i.e., “Hell, I thought this was going to be hard.”
Sutherland, in white ponytail and Coke-bottle eyeglasses, is a charmer as a never-say-die ladies’ man who never passes up an opportunity, and, if a buck-naked (well, almost) physical examination scene is any indication, a well-qualified one.
Garner has become a God-is-my- co-pilot Pentecostal minister. He may have the least to do, but he does it with the self-effacing style of an old maverick.
Only so many creaky old bastard jokes can be told in a row. By all rights, “Space Cowboys” should not have worked, and that’s one of the things that makes it so good. This bunch of dinosaurs is sent up to fix a dinosaur of primitive space technology, which turns out — to almost everyone’s surprise, including Mission Control’s — to be a relic from the Cold War.
The movie takes several cliched situations — the huffing and puffing of basic training, the hotshot who defies the rules, the disease of the month, for a few examples — and brazenly stares them down.
Understatement works as well for Eastwood as a director as it does for him as an actor. “When I use a cliche,” he seems to be saying, “it is no longer a cliche.” It was disheartening at first, for instance, to see one of those celebrity cameos coming, this time by Jay Leno, but the funny thing is that it works. Eastwood is smart enough a director to get in and out very quickly.
A canny thing about the space sequences is that they do not come across as a crunching shift of gears into sci-fi fantasy. The projectionist has not mistakenly put on a reel of “Mission to Mars.” The old crate of a Russian satellite, with its great revolving paddles, thanks to Industrial Light & Magic, has the stamp of authenticity.
There’s another old pro around. It’s James Cromwell (“Babe”) as Frank’s former Air Force boss and now a cagey survivor of military politics.
The manners of command get a nice workout. Leadership in Mission Control is represented by William Devane and Marcia Gay Harden, who calculate life-and-death decisions in an unflappable, conversational tone.
Harden (“Miller’s Crossing”) has an extraordinarily poised screen presence. She plays a NASA official who develops an unprofessional romantic link, and when she twice leans across the screen toward the object of her affection, her warmth is palpable.
In the early going, it is possible to tell which young actor in the grandstanding aerial sequence will turn into Eastwood. Toby Stephens slyly impersonates Eastwood’s cocked eyebrow and suspicious squint. ..