Ancient Mariners

Ancient Mariners

Ancient Mariners

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Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 4 2000 8:30 PM

Ancient Mariners

Codgers show their potency in the slick Space Cowboys. Hollow Man is Paul Verhoeven's latest bloodletting orgy. 

Space Cowboys
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Bros.

Hollow Man
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Columbia Pictures

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Probably I wasn't the only snotty young whippersnapper to point out that in his last film, True Crime (1999), Clint Eastwood seemed a couple of decades too old for the part of the philandering, fast-talking investigative reporter who resolves to save a wrongly convicted man from a lethal injection. The role had been conceived for George Clooney, and the raspy-voiced, 68-year-old Eastwood—never too comfortable with language even in his prime—had a hard time just getting the words out. (You could almost see the flakes of vocal cord swirling like dandruff around his head.) But Eastwood is famously adaptable, and in SpaceCowboys, his agreeable new crowd-pleaser, he makes his age the central issue. The movie is a lean, easygoing, codgers-show-their-potency vehicle in which old astronauts outshine their youngers in every department and mostly live to tell. It proves that male action stars can triumph not only over space but, more important, over time.

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This is a slicker piece of work than we're used to from Eastwood, but after the last few commercial nonstarters, he must have figured he needed to pick up the pace to win back the youth vote. Space Cowboys hums along—a good thing, since the plot holes (the fun but unlikely script is by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner) are too glaring to withstand his usual moody loitering. The story revolves around a malfunctioning Soviet communications satellite called IKON, which is run by an antique computer system stolen at the height of the Cold War from NASA's Skylab files. The joke is that the Russians are too backward to know how to fix it and the Americans are too advanced (it predates microprocessors), but for some mysterious reason no one wants it spiraling out of orbit and breaking up in the atmosphere. So a NASA bureaucrat, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), dispatches a pair of underlings to consult the original designer, Frank Corwin (Eastwood). You read it right: Clint Eastwood plays a rocket scientist.

That is, a rocket scientist who used to fly test planes and always dreamed of going into orbit. But Corwin and his buddies got the shaft. Now he tells Gerson, his old nemesis, that he'll fix IKON only if he can reassemble his Team—code name "Daedalus"—and make the space shuttle flight himself. For movieish reasons, Frank doesn't believe in phoning ahead before he travels hundreds of miles to recruit his old mates. He finds Tank (James Garner), now a minister, messing up a sermon. He finds roller-coaster designer Jerry (Donald Sutherland) in midloop. Cantankerous Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) is doing crazy stunts in a prop plane, and he gives Frank the hardest time. But not too hard or there'd be no picture—and these duffers have to get to NASA to start training. They're not getting any younger.

I can't make jokes about geezers in space or "The Ripe Stuff" because the script beat me to them. It even has such pro forma gags as Sutherland removing his teeth and all four astronauts submitting to various humiliating exams by young woman doctors. You could write this stuff yourself, but you'd be hard pressed to find such a charismatic cast. Eastwood directs them with an unusually light touch. As the pick-up artist of the group, Sutherland has a silly little grin and a mellow demeanor—he has never radiated such warmth. The bull-necked, gum-chewing William Devane does a juicy turn as the mission director, one of those cocky types who doesn't speak his lines but jabs them into peoples' chests.

And Jones: My God, what an actor. Not quite a leading man: There's something sullen and closed-off about him. (Bogie could get away with it because of his liquid eyes and look of torment in repose.) But in flashy supporting parts he can hold his own with anyone alive. Jones' opening scene is a masterpiece of dry Southern one-upmanship, and when he spurns Eastwood's initial offer and adds, "You have a good flight," the underplaying is acidic. He even brings off a lyrical paean to an old test plane for his new NASA girlfriend (Marcia Gay Harden). It's not his rapture that you register. It's his bottomless disgust—his despair—at seeing the bird sit so ugly on the ground.

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Space Cowboys is an assured piece of moviemaking, but there are lapses of intelligence. The lustrous black-and-white prologue that shows Team Daedalus as beautiful young fighter pilots is ruined by someone's decision to dub them with the voices of Eastwood, Jones, etc.—those hoary, recognizable tones sound absurd coming from callow mouths. Although the FX in space are marvelous—especially when IKON shows its true face, opening out like one of those Japanese robot toys—you can't always tell what's blowing up and why. I didn't quite get what happened at the end, either. (Does the moon get nuked?) Two comatose men get strapped to parachutes, chucked out of the shuttle at an insane speed, and are never mentioned again. (Does NASA teach its astronauts how to land unconscious?) And why doesn't the Russian general mention that IKON has a few surprises for Team Daedalus. Is he an idiot?

Probably, since Eastwood's antagonists almost always are idiots. Here, the young-'uns are not merely arrogant but criminally incompetent, and the higher-ups ooze duplicity and cowardice. Eastwood is smarter, braver, readier than anyone. And—of course—in much better shape. He has worked out so hard that he's in too good shape: He has no problem passing his NASA physical, so that age thing turns out to be a nonissue. Which is why Space Cowboys will be a hit. Audiences don't want to see an actor whose success was rooted in making them feel inhumanly potent suddenly enfeebled. They want to see his long rocket lift off. That's the moviegoer's Viagra.

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Hollow Man has thrilling FX—some real coups—but that title is otherwise appallingly apt. The big-budget Invisible Man update opens promisingly with scientists bringing a gorilla back from invisibility—also known as "bioquantum phase shift." The injection goes into the vein and you suddenly see the vein: You watch the serum travel through capillaries and seep into muscles and organs, defining the animal's physique from the arteries up. Cool. The tone of the first section is modeled on David Cronenberg's great The Fly (1986). In a steely underground bunker, the government team labors to perfect an invisibility formula. The trouble starts when the most brilliant but least stable member (Kevin Bacon) decides to be the first human subject. It doesn't take much to push this grandiose creep over the edge.

Face it, the movie says: If no one could see you, wouldn't you sneak into that apartment and watch that beautiful babe slip those big boobs out of that tight blouse? Wouldn't you maybe … touch them? Maybe … have your way with her? Knock her around a little? Gorily disembowel anyone and everyone who knows your secret?

The movie turns into a moronic, psycho-on-the-loose picture pretty quickly: not Hollow Man but HalloweenMan, with a special effect chasing Elisabeth Shue through tunnels and up flaming elevator shafts. It's one thing to see a guy in a cheap hockey mask carving people up, but when millions are spent making steam coalesce around an invisible frame or water droplets run down an invisible face … well, it would be nice to see more narrative ingenuity. The director, Paul Verhoeven, pretended that his last bloodletting orgy, Starship Troopers, was a satire, but he won't fool anyone this time. He digs impaling.