Space Cowboys

Space Cowboys (2000)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, Tommy Lee jones
Extras: Featurettes, Theatrical Trailers, Cast & Crew Biographies

I’ll admit right up front that I’m a bit of a space junkie. Books, movies, GI Joe Mercury 7 astronaut action figures — you name it — if it has to do with the space program I’m all over it. And, while I appreciate the attempts to be scientifically and historically accurate in such cinematic and televised undertakings as "Apollo 13" and "From the Earth to the Moon," I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief and fully enjoy more lighthearted fare like "SpaceCamp" that, all shortcomings aside, allows the viewer to vicariously escape into the stratosphere and beyond. While I certainly wouldn’t lump "Space Cowboys" into this latter category it is a film that isn’t afraid to have some fun and play fast and loose with the facts in order to deliver an entertaining story.

The film opens in 1958 with hotshot pilots Frank Corvin (played by Clint Eastwood later in the film) and William "Hawk" Hawkins (later portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) strapped into a two-seat supersonic Bell X-2 rocket-propelled aircraft. So, right off the bat the filmmakers are letting us know that no fact, no matter how important (the X-2 was not a two-seater) will stand in the way of their story. I actually appreciated this little dose of alternate reality as it sets the tone for the movie and made the later, even more implausible situations, much easier to accept.

But back to the story. It quickly becomes apparent that Hawkins is a risk-taking hot dog while Corvin is much more the straight-laced military type. Their mission to the edge of space turns into a fiasco and the pilots are forced to eject from the out-of-control aircraft. Upon their return to base, the two are introduced to the American who is to be the first into space — a chimp named Mary Ann. With that, Team Daedalus is finished.

The film then jumps ahead forty years as the world watches an old Soviet satellite named Ikon slowly tumbling out of orbit. Further complicating issues is the fact that Ikon is the only viable communications satellite for Russia and its loss would be catastrophic for the young republic.

The President orders NASA to find a way to save Ikon but Mission Control is unable to decipher the old computer guidance code. Mission Director Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) discovers that the Soviets "borrowed" the code from the old American SkyLab and that its creator was — surprise, surprise — Dr. Frank Corvin.

Seeing this turn of events as an opportunity to get into space after a 40-year wait, Corvin agrees to help out as long as his old team is allowed to undertake the mission. Rounding out the gang of four are Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland), a womanizing roller-coaster designer, and Tank Sullivan (James Garner), a Baptist preacher.

What follows is a very predictable story arc in which the oldsters show their disbelieving young colleagues how it’s done. Soon these aged astronauts become public heroes and even the attempts of their old nemesis, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), can’t keep them grounded. Before long they are on their way into orbit and a rendezvous with Ikon.

I don’t wish to give away the ending but it should come as no surprise that the remainder of the film is filled with action, drama, sacrifice, and some mighty fine special effects work from the folks at ILM.

"Space Cowboys" very much reminds me of the classic, star-studded war movies from the 60s and 70s such as "The Dirty Dozen" and "Kelly’s Heroes" in which the story itself takes a backseat to the character interactions between the leading players. It’s clear that the actors are having a blast making this movie and the sheer force of their enthusiasm carries the very sketchy story along. If you’re in the right frame of mind you’ll likely be too busy enjoying the on-screen chemistry to worry about scientific impossibilities and gaping plot holes.

"Space Cowboys" is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced. The image is very sharp with just the faintest hint of edge enhancement. Colors and black levels are both accurate and the stark shots of brightly lit foreground objects against the deep black of space are very believable with no color bleed or contrast issues. The image is also free of compression artifacts and nicks and blemishes on the original elements are almost non-existent. It’s a solid transfer of what one would assume to be a fairly tricky image to work with.

Audio comes in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and French 2.0 Surround tracks. The <$5.1,5.1 mix> is very active with frequent surround usage supplementing the very solid front soundstage. Dynamic range is quite good although deep bass does seem to be rather muted. On the whole the soundtrack is very well-balanced and dialogue is always clear.

While not really a full-blown special edition, the "Space Cowboys" DVD does offer up a few extras. The disc features four featurettes which, when viewed as a whole, take up about an hour. First up is "Up Close With The Editor" which features Joel Cox discussing the intricate editing job needed to pull together the various types of special effects shots. Next is "Tonight on Leno" which offers up some additional Tonight Show footage shot for the film and a few comments from Jay himself. Probably the most interesting of the three featurettes is "The Effects" which features Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Owen discussing a number of the key special effect sequences and revealing the secret of how they were done. Finally, "Back at the Ranch" is a series of interviews with the cast and crew that provides some nice final comments.

Rounding out the bonus features are cast and crew bios and filmographies and the film’s theatrical trailer presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>.

"Space Cowboys" is a fun film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Those who are unable or unwilling to suspend their disbelief will likely find it a difficult pill to swallow. But seeing Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner playing off each other is well worth the price of admission. The DVD itself features excellent video and audio and the few included extras are well-produced and interesting. Space junkies will certainly want to grab this one up for their collections and for everyone else I can recommend "Space Cowboys" as a solid evening’s entertainment.