Cool Hand Luke

Movie Review #810: Anchored by Paul Newman’s sincerity and a brutally honest script, ‘Cool Hand Luke’ is a raw prison drama with a heart at its center.

By Red Stewart

Crime, Drama
Rated PG (contains violence, alcohol use)
126 minutes

Prisons are meant to serve two purposes; contain high-risk/dangerous criminals and reform small time ones, yet over the decades many penitentiaries have become booming austere businesses for the wardens who operate it. They may not be to the levels of harshness as the one in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s film “In Hell”, but it’s still a big problem in the country that’s sadly pushed off to the side.

While not legitimately talking about that issue, “Cool Hand Luke” tells a small-scale story within the scope of it. Here, a former soldier turned drifter named Lucas Jackson finds himself a part of a chain gang after he is caught drunkenly cutting off the heads of several parking meters. From there, Lucas, nicknamed “Cool Hand Luke” by his fellow inmates, learns how the gaol system works and begins challenging it.

Like many of Scorsese’s early movies, “Cool Hand Luke” is a film without a real plot. It goes through the everyday actions of Luke and the other convicts with an offbeat feel that suits the attitude Luke adopts when presented with the many obstacles in his way, from the coldhearted captain to the challenge of eating fifty hardboiled eggs in an hour. This is perhaps Paul Newman’s greatest performance in his entire career; he pulls off the soft snarkiness, reserved demeanor, and confrontational power of Luke perfectly. There’s this one scene towards the final stretch of the movie that continues to stand out in my mind because of Newman’s delivery, and I think you’ll recognize it when you see it. The supporting cast is certainly not to be trifled with either, with George Kennedy even winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Despite how lighthearted I’m making everything seem, the truth is “Cool Hand Luke” is a very callous film for the most part. Going back to what I said, the system Luke continuously goes up against is all about strict rules- the second you break them you’re labeled an enemy of the state that needs to be conditioned back into shape. It can be hard to watch, but there is an inexpressible lure the whole piece holds on the viewer.

“Cool Hand Luke” is a must-see for casual moviegoers and cinema buffs alike. My one gripe with the entire movie would have to be the attempt by the filmmakers at turning Luke into a Christ-figure of sorts, as the effort felt more thrown in than legitimately constructed, but that’s nothing to fret about with a drama this powerful. ✴


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