Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
Written by: Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson
(based on the novel COOL HAND LUKE by Donn Pearce)
Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper
In the world of cinema, COOL HAND LUKE is probably the most influential prison film. It gave birth to a million clichés in this subgenre. The story may seem overly familiar for modern audiences, but these tropes sprung from this adaptation of Donn Pearce’s novel. Modern viewers might have a difficult time with the deliberate pacing and some scenes are a bit cheesy. However, the film remains a dramatic wonder that has aged remarkably well. The cast drives an iffy plotline with great performances. Paul Newman is Luke and he’s part of what makes this film so memorable.
One night, Luke gets drunk and commits a silly act of vandalism. He’s caught rebelling with a cause (see what I did there?) by a police officer. A matter of time later, he arrives at an isolated chain-gang prison commandeered over by some vicious officers and a conniving warden. The sentence is two years and Luke makes an instant enemy with the leader of the gang, nicknamed Dragline. The tide changes when Luke earns the respect of his fellow inmates (Dragline included) through his cool antics and refusal to conform to the expected prison attitude, but the warden (simply known as the Captain) is determined to break Luke’s spirit at any cost.
COOL HAND LUKE is pretty much a film that follows the actions of Luke and his inmates for the first half, then moves on to the title character being sadistically broken down in the second half. The film is considered by many to be a classic of the prison genre, but it also has pacing issues. This is mainly seen in the first half and the second half feeling like two completely different movies when examined in tone. The shift is a little jarring, but the second half is where the film went from decent to really good in the space of a few minutes. The first half of the film does feel unnecessarily long and disjointed from the (sometimes hard to watch) struggle of Luke that comes in the latter.
Ironically, while Paul Newman is great as Luke, we aren’t given a whole lot of character development to the man. The first scene we see of him, he’s drunk vandalizing parking meters. The viewer is informed that he’s a war veteran, but that isn’t much character development. There’s a scene with his sickly mother visiting him, but again, we aren’t given enough information about Luke to really understand who he is. Newman plays off the role as kind of the cool kid in the classroom that everybody likes…except the teacher. The setting of the school was just moved into a chain-gang prison and the teacher was replaced with the warden in charge of running the joint. George Kennedy (who I primarily know as the chief in the NAKED GUN trilogy) plays Dragline and is a far superior character to Luke. A young Dennis Hopper also shows up, but I didn’t recognize him.
The entire series of events involving Luke being beaten, punished, broken and rebelling against the establishment made the film worth watching. The first half takes a long while to get there. While there are plenty that will call this film a masterpiece, I have to call it out on some unnecessary scenes and weak character development behind Cool Hand Luke himself. None of the performances are bad (in fact, Captain is downright sadistic), but there isn’t much of a story either. The film feels like it’s just about a cool greaser-type going to prison and that’s about it. Overall, COOL HAND LUKE is worth viewing (if only to get other film buffs off your back). It’s a really solid film, but also has some problems that aren’t addressed nearly enough in all of the write-ups I see for it.