In a storied career full of classics -- from 'The Hustler' to 'The Sting' to 'Butch Cassidy' to 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' -- it's no small compliment to say that 'Cool Hand Luke' easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul Newman's best. Based on Donn Pearce's classic novel (which was inspired by his two years working a real prison chain gang), 'Cool Hand Luke' is more than just a mere prison drama or even a great escapist thriller, but a landmark entry in the genre of non-conformist filmmaking, one that continues to inspire us to maintain our individuality in a world that often does little to champion it. And in the process, it gives Newman one of his finest, most multi-faceted roles.
Like all great films, 'Cool Hand Luke' is deceptively simple in terms of story, but complex in meaning and rich in theme. In pure plot terms, it is the story of war hero Lucas Jackson, now a down-on-his-luck loser who, as the film begins, will commit the petty crime (whacking the heads off of municipal parking meters!) that puts him in the slammer. Assigned to work a chain gang in a sweaty Florida prison, his loner tendencies and cooly-detached humor soon put him at odds with the deceptively soft-spoken warden of the camp, the sadistic Captain (Strother Martin). Also paying attention to the new arrival are the other prisoners, particularly the teddy bear leader of the pack Dragline (George Kennedy, in an Oscar-winning performance), Dragline's best buddy Koko (Lou Antonio), and another glowering boss at the camp, the borderline-mute Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward).
At first, Luke keeps his defiant inner nature in check by keeping to himself. But his innate smart-ass demeanor will prove impossible to conceal, and he soon begins to wage a campaign against the authority of the prison through small games and gags. These are some of 'Cool Hand Luke's most signature sequences, many of which -- the boxing match with Drag, the way Luke bluffs his way through a poker match with Loko, the oft-quoted egg-eating contest -- are now classic. The other prisoners are at first unable to see that Luke's barely-contained contempt, as expressed through humor, is merely a mask for his fear. This allows Luke to turn into a near-mythic anti-hero, a man of deeds, not words, and one capable of leading a rebellion that the other prisoners are not even fully aware they are going to fight.
'Cool Hand Luke' is often regarded as one of the most entertaining film's of the '60s, which may at first seem a back-handed compliment as it was such a transitional decade for American cinema, one that saw filmmakers and studios starting to take chances with riskier, less commercial fare. In hindsight, 'Cool Hand Luke's closest cinematic cousin is actually Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (produced in 1975), and it also recalls other anti-conformity classics such as Robert Altman's 'M*A*S*H,' Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five,' and Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22.' By the film's rousing final act, when Luke attempts an all-out escape in order to see his ailing mother, his acts of defiance are as stirring and weighty as anything seen in 'Cuckoo's Nest.' He has become an inspirational beacon for the other prisoners, and a metaphor for the belief that no matter what society demands, man must always fight for his own independence and individuality, at any cost. Because to conform is to die.
As strong a story and a film as 'Cool Hand Luke' is, it's also entirely Newman's picture. It may be his best performance. He nails every beat and wrings true every line. He perfectly conveys Luke's scrappy charm, hard-edged stubbornness, and physical prowess (despite being slight of build). He also manages to craft a fully three-dimensional, believable character in Luke, while remaining every inch a star that can command every frame of film he appears in. 'Cool Hand Luke' is a true classic, a film that works on just about every level -- as entertainment, as allegory, and as an actor's tour de force.
'Cool Hand Luke' makes its high-def debut in a lovely 1080p/VC-1 remaster. The film was previously released in a bare-bones standard DVD edition, one which at the time was laudable but is now quite dated. This Blu-ray is a significant improvement, and if it's not quite at the level of the absolute best Warner remasters, it's still a very admirable presentation.
Warner has nicely cleaned up the source, with the print not absolutely pristine but largely free of dirt, blemishes, and defects. Grain is noticeably reduced over the previous DVD, though purists may complain as it appears that at least some Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) has been applied. Still, I found the picture to have a nice film-like texture.
Colors are vibrant, too, with fleshtones more accurate than the DVD and hues stronger and cleaner. Detail is quite impressive for a now 30-plus year-old film -- fine details are clearly visible. Softness does waver, as can contrast, but stability is generally solid for the most part. Depth is likewise excellent for a film of this vintage, and the encode is clean. All in all, another very fine catalog effort from Warner.
Sadly, Warner was not able to upgrade the audio elements for 'Cool Hand Luke,' and once again the film is presented in English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono only (192kbps). It's serviceable.
The source is limited in fidelity. Highs aren't excessively cramped but they're hardly spacious and airy. Low bass is flat as a board. Dialogue sounds fine, though it lacks distinction -- busy scenes often break down into muddiness, with background actors frequently unintelligible. There are no major source issues, however, such as noise or hiss. And as you would expect from a mono track, there are no surrounds to offer any atmosphere. An acceptable presentation.
Warner has produced a nice, if somewhat slim, batch of new extras for this anniversary Blu-ray edition of 'Cool Hand Luke.' It's certainly an improvement over the bare-bones DVD. (All video materials are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.)
'Cool Hand Luke' is a classic of anti-establishment cinema. It's a still-tough and gritty film, enlivened by a literate script and another great performance by Paul Newman. This Blu-ray is quite good, with excellent video and some slick new supplements. Sadly, the audio is mono only, but that caveat aside, 'Cool Hand Luke' is an easy recommend for a purchase on Blu-ray and certainly, if you've never seen it before, it's a must-rent.