Ten years before The Expendables came out, Space Cowboys made the idea of an old-geezers team-up movie cool.
Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner came together to turn what could have been a predictable fish-out-of-water story into a very good movie that is still a lot of fun to watch.
So grab a nice bottle of Ensure and try not to pass out from the G’s as we dive in to what makes Space Cowboys a forgotten film gem.
Old vs. New
The best part of Space Cowboys is the extended training sequence. We get to watch four elderly former test pilots have to go up against young athletic astronauts in a race to see who makes it onto the space shuttle for a critically important mission.
Early in the film, the young astronauts poke fun at the old guys by ordering a round of Ensure for them at lunch. The old guys smile good-naturedly and accept the drinks. Later, after they’ve managed to survive everything NASA could throw at them, they order a round of baby food for the young astronauts. As the young guys stare in disbelief at the jars, the old guys raise their bottles of Ensure in mock tribute to them.
The great thing about all of this isn’t that the old guys always put the young people in their place, but that we get to see how much they struggle just to hold on for dear life through the rigorous exercise and other physical tests. Seeing them give the young people a taste of their own medicine feels totally earned, not condescending or forced, as it easily could have.
This movie doesn’t glamorize the heroes. They’re presented as deeply flawed people with tempers. We root for them because they’re underdogs who never got a fair shake at doing the jobs they were born to do.
Going Out in a Blaze of Glory
Tommy Lee Jones steals every scene he’s in, and the whole film winds up being mostly about him. He’s always been the kind of guy to push the envelope and dream of flying to the moon. But he fears he’ll never live his dreams, especially when he learns he has cancer and he’s going to die soon, no matter what he does.
Right after he learns this sad truth, he spends time admiring a decommissioned SR-71. He talks about how ugly it is and how terrible it functions when it’s trying to get up to speed, but once it passes Mach 1 everything clicks into place and it becomes the most impressive piece of airborne machinery ever.
He’s obviously talking about himself. This scene defines his character in so many ways. The SR-71 Blackbird could get so close to outer space, but it could never actually reach that pinnacle. It was replaced by orbiting satellites, which were a much more cost-efficient and safer means of spying on enemies. It’s depressing to see the jet living out its days on the ground when it’s meant to be in the air. And it’s always at its best when it’s at insanely high altitudes and speeds that few others can match.
Without giving the ending away, I’ll just say that Jones finds a way to avoid dying a sad death like the SR-71, and he finds redemption and solace for all his years as a test pilot dreaming of making it to space.
The most obvious setup in the film is when Tommy Lee Jones’ character shows the young astronauts something they’ve never seen before. Everyone tries to convince him that he should just trust the space shuttle’s computer to land the ship for him, but he won’t have any of that. During a space shuttle landing simulator, he asks for the computer to malfunction so he would have to guide it in manually. And he does so flawlessly, to everyone’s amazement.
Later, the crew finds itself in a desperate real-life situation in which the computer has failed and so their only hope is to land the space shuttle manually. What do they do? Exactly what Jones did earlier and everything turns out fine. Sure, it’s predictable, but it’s also a fitting ending to their journey.
Again, it doesn’t come across as preachy, like the old guys always know best. It feels more like it’s saying that we don’t want to lose our very human qualities of resourcefulness and ingenuity in this age of automation. A computer can’t predict every situation that might occur, which is why we should always be ready to step up and use our intuition in a crisis. This scene feels a lot like when Luke Skywalker switches off his targeting computer at the climax of Star Wars. Not quite as good as that, of course, but still pretty darn satisfying.
Proving They’ve Still Got It
Since Space Cowboys, the four elderly leading men went on to show that they have a lot of great days still ahead of them.
Clint Eastwood made two films that earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima), and he won Best Picture and Best Director awards for Million Dollar Baby. He clearly is still at the top of his game.
Tommy Lee Jones starred in two Men in Black sequels, as well as Captain America and No Country for Old Men. And he was nominated for two Oscars for his acting in The Valley of Elah and Lincoln (2012).
Donald Sutherland has been extremely busy, contributing his acting talents to good films like The Italian Job (2003), Cold Mountain, Pride & Prejudice (2005), and The Hunger Games series.
James Garner starred in the underrated Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Notebook.
Oh, and coincidentally one of the writers of Space Cowboys co-wrote The Expendables 2. That’s fitting.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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