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 10-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 this gigantic Russian communications satellite name Ikon, launched in the waning days of the Soviet Union, is threatening to crash to Earth. For byzantine political reasons, it's decided that 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 60s. 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 is, by current action standards, relaxed and even a little meandering, which is 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 involves 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 completely 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 on screen don't look that far out of line agewise. (In real life, he's 53 and she's 40.) In fact, what does look out of line is Jones' 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, 10 to 20 years younger than the others.
It's not a deal-breaker, but this weirdness in the casting is an intermittent distraction. It also should be pointed out that much of the plot is insanely implausible, even taking into account the reality of John Glenn's most recent space venture. Every once in a while, a character will stop and remark, "Hey, what is an American guidance system doing on a Soviet satellite?" but the way in which this question isn't dealt with until near the end of the film is definitely shabby.
Still, plot holes and casting inconsistencies aside, Space Cowboys' two-hour-plus running time whizzes right by without a dull moment. The story could be taken as a metaphor for the production itself: The old guy proves that his recent disappointments aren't the result of age-based deterioration. He can still make a damn fine movie.