Worth A Look: 32.94%
Pretty Bad: 17.65%
Total Crap: 5.88%
8 reviews, 37 user ratings
by Andrew Howe
The Man in the Iron Mask is not one of Dumas’ most celluloid-friendly novels. For the majority of its word count it eschews swashbuckling feats of daring in favour of political machinations, and even the presence of the four musketeers is not sufficient to transform the slow-moving storyline into a crowd-pleaser.However, in 1998 a great many people turned out to bathe in the glow of the most recent adaptation, and the reasons can be counted on one hand – Irons, Malkovich, Byrne, Depardieu and a little-known fellow by the name of DiCaprio. The pleasure of watching these consummate actors at work is sufficient to distract the viewer from the fact that, wherever you are in the film, you’re always a long way from an unsheathed sword, and moreover their skill is such that they invest the rather sketchy characters with a pleasing vitality.
"Age may not have wearied them, but the script does"
(DiCaprio, incidentally, is not a consummate actor, but in that film he sang way above his range).
If you were to fast forward two years, substitute Eastwood, Jones, Sutherland, Garner and Cromwell for the names above; replace “slow-moving plot” with “storyline which stretches the bounds of credulity”; and chisel off one star for supplanting genuine emotion with the equivalent of a Readers Digest condensed novel, you’d probably find yourself watching Space Cowboys, an easily-digestible piece of fluff which, despite innumerable crimes against humanity, avoids a complete pasting for reasons which can be counted on those same five fingers.
(Cromwell, incidentally, is a consummate actor, but in this film his wings have been well and truly strapped).
Much as it pains me to recollect the plot, for the sake of completeness I will note that it goes something like this: in 1958 four test pilots miss their one big chance to secure a place in the space program. Forty years later a Russian satellite threatens to crash into the Earth, and for reasons which are initially unclear (to everyone except the viewer, that is, who will doubtless divine the real reason for the mission within five minutes of its inception) NASA agrees to send up a crew to effect the necessary repairs.
Nothing to get too concerned about so far. However, in short order the following occurs:
* Despite having access to the finest scientific minds in the Northern Hemisphere, NASA is unable to fathom the “obsolete technology” used in the satellite’s navigation system (given NASA’s recent track record some may suggest that this may not be too far from the truth).
* The head of the organisation (James Cromwell) contacts the designer of said piece of equipment, none other than one of the test pilots he snubbed many years before (Clint Eastwood).
* Eastwood blackmails Cromwell into allowing him to round up his old cronies (Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner), believing that NASA will allow them to spearhead the rescue effort.
* NASA allows them to spearhead the rescue effort.
The most amusing part of this little charade is that the screenwriters (Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner) actually go out of their way to provide a string of halfway-believable explanations for the plot’s most mind-bending conceits, and for that they have my grudging admiration. It should, however, be apparent from the above synopsis that we are dealing with a fantasy on a par with the latest Bond flick, so to attack it on the grounds of blatant stupidity is to conceivably miss the point.
What may not be apparent is that Space Cowboys is actually a kid’s film masquerading as adult entertainment (Kaufman’s only other writing credit of note was Muppets in Space, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised). The spectre of the PG-13 rating ensures there is no profanity (an unlikely state of affairs given that we are dealing with a group of grizzled ex-military types), but that doesn’t unduly detract from the proceedings. What does lower the film a few notches in the estimation of the discerning viewer is the way in which the script ignores the possibilities for pathos inherent in the premise.
We are, after all, dealing with a group of senior citizens, and that brings with it a truckload of emotional baggage. The passing of loved ones, the sorrow of fading glory, the juxtaposition of youthful exuberance with the spectre of the grave, the rekindling of ancient friendships – it’s enough to have fans of character-driven films salivating in anticipation, especially when you consider the calibre of the actors involved.
Now don’t get me wrong - I’m not so ensconced on my high horse that I fail to realise this film is meant to be light entertainment. However, the script actually makes a half-hearted attempt to canvass certain of these issues (not to mention the notion of an intimate relationship between a woman and a man twenty years her senior), and that makes it fair game for comment. These aspects of human existence deserve to be presented in a thoughtful, sympathetic manner, not reduced to token concessions to an adult audience. The only bright spot is the fact that the romantic subplot actually borders on believability (it’s certainly less cringeworthy than the pairing of, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery), but that’s purely down to the ability of the actors to rise above the hackneyed dialogue.
And this is where the film claws itself back from the edge of oblivion. It would be going too far to suggest that any of the actors are amongst the finest ever to stand before a camera (though Eastwood isn’t too far removed), but to a man they are charismatic, likeable performers who make you feel like you’re spending time in the company of old friends. Eastwood is in fine form as usual, riding roughshod over a role which provides him with plenty of opportunities to prove that he’s the last of the red-hot tough guys. Much of the film’s humour and charm can be attributed to Eastwood’s exaggerated facial expressions and deadpan delivery, and Jones is never far behind (his performance in Men in Black proved that he should not be confined to dramatic roles).
With one exception, the remaining actors provide memorable support. The ubiquitous James Cromwell does the best he can with a thankless role, while Donald Sutherland appears to be enjoying himself immensely. Special mention, however, must go to William Devane, who effortlessly holds his own amongst the big guns, and Marcia Gay Harden, who rises above her role as the nominal love interest by virtue of her understated appeal (we can be truly thankful that the film’s creators resisted the urge to cast a red-hot vixen, since Harden brings a certain schoolmarmish vulnerability to the role which makes her attraction to Jones at least marginally believable).
James Garner, unfortunately, is the odd man out. The fact that he is afforded precious little screen time doesn’t help matters, but it gives me no pleasure to report that his primary failing is simply that he has not aged as well as the others. Eastwood and Jones look like they could still go a few rounds with Muhammad Ali, while Sutherland has, if anything, become even more charming as the years roll by. Garner, on the other hand, looks unfit and unwell, and age seems to have robbed him of his natural charm and screen presence.
Given these facts, the measure of your enjoyment will hinge on the degree to which you can forgive ridiculous plotting and cardboard characters for the pleasure of watching a cadre of fine actors at work. It’s worth remembering, however, that Hollow Man was also a decidedly average film, but the fact that it featured gratuitous death and dismemberment ensured the viewer left the cinema with a bad taste in the mouth. Space Cowboys, on the other hand, at least sees you from the theatre on the right side of upbeat, so its crimes are easier to excuse.
Or, to put it another way – if you’re only going to see one average film this year, it’s worth putting this one on the short list.
* * *
Postscript – What were they thinking? part XVI
*** Warning – major spoiler to follow ***
Before I take my leave, I can’t resist pointing out one more prime moment of idiocy. Here’s the set-up: the crew of the shuttle are forced to re-enter on manual control, which practically ensures they will have to crash-land (though most viewers will have realised about an hour before how this sequence will turn out). The mission controller gravely intones that the chances of survival from bailing out are about 20%, which stands to reason given that achieving terminal velocity is not generally considered to be a good career move.
The shuttle eventually makes it through the atmosphere, at which point one of our heroes grabs the two crew members who are along for the ride (we know this because their names don’t appear on the movie poster) and ditches them, unconscious, out of the shuttle.
Now, we can probably assume that if you have a 20% chance of survival, when you’re unconscious the odds are worse still. And here’s the best part – at no time between that moment and the closing credits does anyone mention what happened to these guys. Since this is a reasonably light-hearted exercise we might expect that someone would say “Hey, they picked up Joe and Moe from the ocean – geez those guys are lucky!”, and given the unlikely series of events which played out over the preceding 120 minutes we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. However, since the scriptwriter didn’t see fit to include such a line we can safely assume that they scraped Joe and Moe off the pavement with a rather large shovel.What were they thinking? As Paul Newman said in Cool Hand Luke – “You might say I wasn’t thinking”. ‘Nuff said.
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originally posted: 10/22/00 13:00:34