Clint Eastwood may not have made a western since Unforgiven—a perfect final statement on the subject that he would be foolish to follow up—but it's hard, as an icon, for him to distance himself from the genre. More than just a film with an easily marketable title referencing a popular song, Space Cowboys allows for even less distance than usual. A true one-last-ride adventure that substitutes the so-called final frontier for the one between the Mississippi and the Pacific, the film stars Eastwood (who also directs), Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland as former test pilots who never got a promised chance to serve as astronauts. When a Cold War-era Russian satellite threatens to enter Earth's atmosphere after an archaic, Eastwood-designed guidance system begins to fail, the four are called into action and begin training for active duty in space. It is, of course, a ridiculous premise on which to hang a movie, but it's to Space Cowboys' benefit that Eastwood doesn't play the essentially lighthearted film strictly for laughs. The training sequences may be filled with predictable geriatric humor (kept on the safe side of cutesy, for the most part), but there's poignancy and a little black humor in the way the protagonists keep asking about old friends only to find that they've died. Even without good material, it would be a pleasure to see the leads work together, so it's an even greater pleasure to find that the film gets better as it progresses, a development that has little to do with its plot—this may be the only movie not featuring James Bond or Rocky and Bullwinkle to prominently feature a stereotypically duplicitous Russian—and everything to do with craftsmanship and mood. Eastwood's direction, which seamlessly incorporates unobtrusive special-effects work, seems far more assured than it has in a while, and each almost equally iconic actor gets a chance to create a character worth caring about, even if Eastwood and Jones receive the bulk of the screen time. Without this director and cast, it's hard to imagine Space Cowboys working—at its heart, it's pretty corny—but Eastwood and company rework it into both a fitting salute to the first space age and an ultimately moving piece about growing old not gracefully, but well.
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