There's so much goodwill invested in Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, mostly stemming from its venerable and accomplished cast, that I feel like a killjoy for saying that the movie itself is really mediocre.
It has some great moments, to be sure, and it's a definite kick seeing leading roles go to a quartet whose youngest member is in his mid-50s. But while Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner bring what they can to the party, screenwriters Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner destroy their every effort by piling hoary situations on top of cliches, and as a director, Eastwood, unsurprisingly, shows a greater flair for scenes of gentle comedy than rousing sci-fi action. The film isn't an embarrassment; it's just a shame.
Buying Space Cowboys' plotline calls for a major suspension of disbelief, but it's summer, so we're used to that. After 40 years in space, a Soviet satellite is about to crash to Earth, and for a number of reasons, it would be better for all concerned if it were repaired. But its machinations are too antiquated for any current NASA genius to figure out, so the mission chief (James Cromwell) enlists the aid of his old nemesis Frank Corvin (Eastwood), the man who designed it, and Corvin's circa-1958 Air Force cronies Hawk (Jones), Jerry (Sutherland), and Tank (Garner). From then on, Space Cowboys becomes two movies: one, a fish-out-of-water comedy in which these, uh, mature gentlemen try to pass military muster surrounded by cocky youngsters and disbelieving officials; the other, a space thriller where the lives of many are in their experienced but shopworn hands.
The first movie works much better. Though most of the jokes in the training sequences are older than the stars themselves (failing-eyesight gags, jogging gags, oops-we-see-old-men-naked gags), they're brought off with considerable skill, and the four leads each have laugh-out-loud-funny moments throughout. It's especially gratifying to see Sutherland playing it light after so many predictable performances in those governmental-conspiracy movies he seems inordinately fond of - oh wait, Space Cowboys features a governmental conspiracy subplot, too - and being surrounded by a group of talented co-stars always brings out something relaxed and charming in Eastwood himself. And while, as a director, Eastwood's pacing is typically lethargic, he knows how to score laughs for his co-stars, and even brings something almost poignant to the tragically romantic Hawk, the film's most clichéd character. (Jones, wonderful pro that he is, rides over the clichés like he doesn't even know they're there.)
But once this crew achieves liftoff, the movie itself becomes staggeringly earthbound. All traces of humor vanish, and surprisingly, so do all traces of character. By the time the group reaches the satellite, it no longer matters who is up there, let alone how old they are, because Space Cowboys turns into, of all things, a clone of Armageddon. We get the accidents befalling secondary characters, the beat-the-clock action countdown, the bravery of one man sacrificing his life for mankind ... all that crap. Before the last 40 minutes or so, the film had been no great shakes but was certainly amusing enough; by the finale, you get the feeling that the filmmakers had no idea what was making their movie special, and jettisoned everything unique in favor of "crowd-pleasing" action. Despite the fine special effects, the crowd I saw the movie with appeared nonplussed by all the space hooey (which might be an indication of the box-office free-fall Space Cowboys will probably take).
As is usual in an Eastwood-directed film, the production design is top-notch, with longtime Eastwood collaborator Jack N. Green providing some wonderful photography, and the cast is filled with familiar faces; in addition to Cromwell doing his standard decadent-bastard number, the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden, Loren Dean, Courtney B. Vance, Barbara Babcock, Blair Brown, and the hammy William Devane. All their work, though, is in the service of a hackneyed and conventional story, one that sabotages its own best bits in favor of something more commercial. In one of the more disappointing movie summers of the past decade, Space Cowboys ranks as one of the hugest disappointments, a film that had all the right stuff and then, for the most part, blew it.
In addition to his gum-smacking supporting turn in Space Cowboys, William Devane also shows up in Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man, in which he gets killed before he can overact too badly. That's one of the few genuine pleasures in the film. As we've come to expect from Verhoeven, whose works include Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, he's again raised the bar on state-of-the-art sci-fi visual effects and graphic bloodshed; Verheoven goes for a combination of awe-inspired wonder and turn-your-head-away nausea. Bless his heart, he has seen the future, and it makes us queasy.
Unfortunately, he still has a major problem with human beings and narrative (getting absolutely no help from screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe), and Hollow Man ends up as shallow as its title. An updating of the Invisible Man idea, this one features Kevin Bacon as your traditional mad scientist who tries his risky invisibility serum on himself, only to discover that: 1) it's harder to get your visibility back than to lose it; 2) he rather likes being unseen; and 3) he'd rather spend his time raping and killing than shoplifting or sneaking into the movies for free. This last bit is actually an interesting take on the tale, and Bacon is well-cast as the egomaniacal crackpot. But just when your interest in the grubbiness of the setup is piqued, Hollow Man turns into a second-rate Alien clone, in which Bacon's fellow researchers are trapped with him in their underground lab, and he begins offing them one by one. Couldn't Verhoeven and Marlowe have come up with anything more inspired than this?
There are several sequences that are amazing; the transformation scenes, with organs and blood vessels appearing and disappearing in shifts, are tremendous, and there are marvelous visual effects on display every time Bacon is nearly visible, such as when he's underwater or drenched in blood. But for every scene that tickles the viscera, we're treated to two with completely unsurprising "Boo!" effects, and as a genetic scientist, peppy little Elisabeth Shue is a joke; hers is the saddest (and yet funniest) piece of miscasting yet this year. Although the visual effects and Kevin Bacon's presence suggest otherwise, Hollow Man is, in the end, completely empty.