The hook of Space Cowboys is essentially Geezers in Space...The Over-the-Hill Gang in the Stratosphere...The Sunshine Boys Go to the Moon. A ten-minute black-and-white opening sequence sets up some of the characters for us: Frank Corvin (Toby Stephens) is the daredevil leader of the Air Force's Team Daedalus flight crew in 1958, and Hawk Hawkins (Eli Craig) is his even more daredevil partner. They are gearing up to become the first astronauts in the developing space program but are aced out when the program is transferred from the Air Force to NASA, a civilian agency.
Somehow -- it's not entirely explained -- their ill fortune is the result of machinations by Bob Gerson (Billie Worley), a Machiavellian bureaucrat. Forty-two years pass, the world turns to color, and Corvin (now Eastwood) is in happy retirement. But Gerson (now James Cromwell) is forced to come to Corvin for help with a problem. It seems that there's this gigantic Russian communications satellite named Ikon, launched in the waning days of the Soviet Union, that is threatening to crash to Earth. For byzantine political reasons, it's crucial to repair Ikon's faltering guidance system in space; even more bizarre, Ikon's guidance system is a rip-off of the American Skylab design -- a technology so obsolete that no one really knows how to fix it except its creator...Frank Corvin.
Corvin wouldn't waste spit on Gerson if the latter were on fire, but he sees a way to get his revenge on him and to fulfill his longtime dream of being an astronaut. He forces -- blackmails, really -- Gerson into agreeing to send Team Daedalus to do the repair mission themselves, even though all of its original members are well into their sixties. So he gathers up Hawk (now Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry (Donald Sutherland) and Tank (James Garner), who lug their geriatric carcasses to Houston for intensive training. The first two-thirds of the film are relaxed and even a little meandering by action standards, but that's not a bad thing: Not every action film has to be a shot-out-of-a-cannon special-effects extravaganza. The old-fashioned pacing is more reminiscent of, say, William Wellman, for whom Eastwood worked early in his career.
Most of the film's humor comprises variations on a single joke -- a bunch of old farts showing that they can still cut the mustard. Eastwood has been playing off his age at least since In the Line of Fire, where his inability to keep up physically was a running gag. Of course, even though he joked about the age disparity between himself and leading lady Rene Russo, he still got the girl at the end. Here, he totally takes himself out of the always-queasy aging-male-star-beds-babe-young-enough-to-be-his-daughter syndrome. Frank is shown to have a loving relationship with his wife (Barbara Babcock, who is less than seven years younger than Eastwood in real life). As for the others: Sutherland's character is portrayed as an incorrigible ladies' man, but the romantic subplot is reserved for Jones and Marcia Gay Harden, who don't look that far out of line agewise on screen. In fact, what does look out of line is Jones's casting as a contemporary of the other stars.
Their current age lineup is Garner, 72; Eastwood, 70; Sutherland, 66; and Jones, 53. Garner looks his age; Eastwood looks his age (even though he's an incredibly handsome, in-shape specimen); Sutherland either has aged drastically in the last few years or, likelier, has allowed himself to be made up to look older than he really is; and Jones looks, well, ten to twenty years younger than the rest of them. It's not a deal-breaker, but this weirdness in casting is an intermittent distraction. So is the insanely implausible plot, even taking into account the reality of John Glenn's most recent space venture.
Still, plot holes and casting inconsistencies aside, Space Cowboys' two-hour-plus running time whizzes by without a dull moment. The story could be taken as a metaphor for the production itself: The old guy's recent disappointments aren't the result of age-based deterioration -- Eastwood can still make a damn fine movie.