The central image of Clint Eastwood‘s Space Cowboys is a shot of four saggy backsides. They belong to Clint (age 70), James Garner (72), Donald Sutherland (66) and Tommy Lee Jones (53). Or if you prefer to linger in the past, they belong to Rowdy Yates, Brett Maverick, Hawkeye Pierce and Gary Gilmore. Time and gravity have not been kind to their saddle-sore posteriors: They droop and bulge, they hang asymmetrically, pitted with alarming dimples and craters. Collectively, they constitute an anti–Mount Rushmore — or four possible pictures of Dorian Gray’s ass.

Space Cowboys is a fantasy about overcoming obsolescence and proving that age need not diminish us. But it‘s typical of Eastwood’s terse directorial style and his taste for sardonic self-deprecation that he undercuts any illusions about his heroes‘ potency by parading their ill-upholstered buttocks. ”Boys will be boys,“ goes the movie’s tag line, but the asses remind us that boys will one day also be grouchy, shagged-out old geezers reaching for their Geritol.

Eastwood is doing a good job of growing old. Not for him the surgeon‘s slab, the Vaseline on the lens, the truss or the digitally adjusted hairline. He has made a canny virtue of his age — and had fun doing it — ever since he gained full control of his career in the early ’70s. The Man With No Name is now equally well known as the man who couldn‘t shoot straight or mount a horse in Unforgiven. The man who played emotionally dead Harry Callahan finally managed to shed a tear (or did he?) in Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire, and the sexually illegible superhero of yesteryear even submitted to heavy bondage in Tightrope. Old age is another means of enriching his characters, because the stakes are always higher as evening approaches.

Space Cowboys opens at high noon in the four men‘s lives. It’s 1958, and they are Team Daedalus, a Right Stuff quartet training to be the first men into space. These boys are very much fathers to the old men they‘ll become. Frank (who grows up to be Eastwood) is a great flier but not a team player. Hawk (Jones) is an irresponsible thrill junkie. Jerry and Tank (Sutherland and Garner) are a womanizing engineer and a wiseass co-pilot who take a backseat to the two-fisted rivalry between Frank and Hawk. (Disconcertingly, the scenes use young actors dubbed by the four aging stars.) But Team Daedalus never leaves terra firma. At the last moment, their boss and nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell to be) sends up a chimpanzee in their place. They look as if their whole lives are ruined. Cut to the present, where Frank, now a retired NASA engineer, is making a balls-up of installing a new garage-door opener when he’s visited by NASA techies Marcia Gay Harden and Loren Dean. A Russian satellite with a design based on Frank‘s own blueprints for Skylab needs the attention of an engineer with suitably vintage technical skills. On meeting Cromwell again (their mutual contempt has not subsided), Frank suggests that the only way to fix the bird is to send the original Team Daedalus into space to repair it. Forty years on, it looks as if the dreams of their 20s may come true in their late 60s.

This entirely ridiculous, utterly lovable premise unleashes oodles of geezer jokes, as the younger trainees send cans of Increase to the old boys’ canteen table, and they reply with baby food. The midsection of the movie is a symphony of creaking joints, hacking coughs and crotchety groans. In the intervening years, Tank has become a preacher, Hawk a crop-duster and Jerry a designer of roller coasters, none of which has been a substitute for the status of first man in space, and all of which suggests that none of them has ever grown up. The story thus primed, Eastwood and scriptwriters Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner lazily subject their four old farts to the predictable, plot-pointed rigors of mainstream story architecture. Now‘s their chance to learn to be team players, bury old rivalries, grow up, slow down.

Space Cowboys’ best moments depend on its likable quartet of stars. Elsewhere, as is often the case when Eastwood is his own helmsman, the pacing‘s a little too slack for the movie’s own good. Clint‘s recent directorial outings have been frankly unmemorable. The Bridges of Madison County was vain and empty. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was horribly uneven, and True Crime was slipshod and clumsy. Space Cowboys is an improvement on all of them, but it lacks the tautness and sinew we associate with sub–Don Siegel exercises like The Outlaw Josey Wales or Unforgiven. Still, though the female roles are as ill-conceived and underwritten as always, and the famously easygoing Garner is criminally underused, and though the whole movie loses steam once the space shuttle is launched, it’s a rare pleasure to see these senior citizens given so much screen time, droopy butts and all.

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