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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Clint Eastwood takes a posse of old-timers into orbit in Space Cowboys

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The genre-blending sequel Riddick inspires five days of space westerns.


Space Cowboys (2000)

Clint Eastwood stepped away from proper Westerns as both star and director after Unforgiven. Although he’s mainly turned to serious, often awards-baiting projects since, he’s also occasionally dipped back into genre waters for thrillers like Absolute Power or mysteries like Blood Work. The best of this lighter batch—and better, for that matter, than a lot of his tonier attempts—is Space Cowboys, the 2000 feature that anticipated the current trend of old movie stars teaming up to prove they can still kick ass.

The film doesn’t exactly translate Eastwood’s lone-gunslinger persona of yore into outer space. Instead, he plays a retired Air Force engineer whose team (including Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner) was bounced from a nascent space-exploration program in favor of damn dirty apes and NASA in the early ’60s. But even as a man of science, Clint is plenty ornery; James Cromwell is his old nemesis Bob Gerson, and Eastwood has a way of making the name “Bob” sound like “sonny” or “jackass.” Cromwell and Eastwood are thrown back into conflict when NASA seeks the latter’s help repairing an outdated satellite that will otherwise plunge Earthward. Eastwood lobbies to get his crew back in the space saddle to perform the repair work, against Cromwell’s protests. “Clock’s ticking, Bob… and I’m only getting older,” he rasps— easily the actor’s best bon mot since “make my day.”

In typical Eastwood fashion, the classicism of Space Cowboys sometimes creaks. The setup has plenty of over-chewed clichés, especially in its dialogue, and the movie probably doesn’t need all of its 130 minutes to tell this story. But it’s also exactly the kind of old-fashioned studio picture Eastwood knows how to knock out with little fuss; he gives the screenplay’s shopworn components—bad tempers, technology-dependent whippersnappers—a warm familiarity. Sutherland and Garner have less to do than Eastwood and Jones, but all four have enough personality to turn the director’s minimum-takes policy into an asset.

They also have both the humor and gravitas to make the movie’s silly stuff play as well as its more serious stakes. When the lightly comic astronaut-training scenes give way to a zero-gravity procedural adventure, Eastwood’s space shots—which benefit from Industrial Light & Magic effects work that still looks reasonably credible 13 years later—boast the quiet poetry of a sunset landscape in a standard Western. Outer-space mission movies were very much in vogue at the time of Space Cowboys’ release (it came out only two years after the great Deep Impact/Armageddon face-off, and a few months after Mission To Mars), and it’s nice to see one that doesn’t devolve into a frenetic effects demo reel. That’s the sort of old-guy sentiment Space Cowboys expertly draws out.

Availability: Space Cowboys is available on DVD—which can be obtained through Netflix’s delivery service—and for rental or purchase from the major digital providers.