Luke doesn’t give a damn. He’s had it rough enough, long enough not to care no more. Sure, sometimes he wonders why and how and whatnot, you know, what’s the old man up there’s doing to him? But mostly he just goes with the flow, taking hardships as they come with a smile. After all, a lot of them he’s brought himself. Like now he’s been sentenced to work in a chain gang, cutting weeds and digging ditches off the side of roads, and for what? For a night when he felt silly, got drunk and went out to cut the heads of parking meters! The bulk of the film is set in a minimum security jail, between Luke and a bunch of other down on their luck dudes. They work like slaves all day, and then they go back to their bunks and try to have a few laughs, make some bets (watch out for that egg eating contest!), play some cards, read dirty books. All while trying to keep a low profile so the guards don’t get on their case. Cause here, the smallest offend gets you a beating and a night in “the box”, as Luke will learn over and over. Yet he keeps being a smart-ass, rocking the boat and trying to escape. Here’s a guy who just won’t quit, no matter how hard you beat on him. Or will he?
“Cool Hand Luke” has been around for decades, but I hadn’t seen the movie until today, when I rented the DVD out of curiosity springing from discussions of the picture in the Cinemarati forums and how John Cusack’s “Serendipity” character calls it his favorite movie. I wouldn’t go this far, but I did really enjoy it. I have a thing for late 60s, early 70s American cinema. There’s a tone and style in them that’s quite particular. It’s not as polished, technically and thematically, as most of today’s cinema; there are rough edges, but sometimes that’s the most interesting thing. Take the opening, for instance. The filmmakers could have gone and have Luke pull this big stunt which would have get him thrown in jail. Or they could have taken the melodramatic route of a “Con Air”, in which Cage’s crime was to beat up a guy who was attacking his girl. Nah, here Luke’s getting sloshed and beheading meters! He doesn’t even take the money, he just cuts the stupid things! “Mostly was just settlin’ an old score”, he’ll explain cryptically.
I like this kind of non-conformist character. Through the film, Luke just keeps defying people’s expectations and being a rebel without a cause, really. He’s kind of like Jack Nicholson’s character in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, standing up to the Establishment even though it’s not too good for his well being. Think also of Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption” or of that one scene in “Fight Club” where Tyler takes a beating from big Lou, which must have been inspired by the one in which Luke just keeps getting up to meet Dragline’s punches. This type of attitude brings each of these guys the respect and admiration of their peers, who like to see them do and say what they’re afraid to, which mirrors our feeling in the audience.
The film was written by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, adapting the novel by Pearcem who himself spent two years on a chain gang. This gives the film a feel of authenticity, even though some of it has got to be wish fulfilment fantasy. I mean, is anyone as badass and cool as Luke? Well, maybe Paul Newman is, or he’s just a really good actor. Or both. In any case, this is an electrifying performance. I think what did it mostly for me is “that ol’ Luke smile”. Newman’s really as charismatic as it gets in this movie. A man’s man, tough but with a sharp wit. The smile, God! A smile which says, “keep it up, buster, you’re not breaking this sum’bitch”. There’s also the great score by Lalo Schifrin on old guitars and banjo, Stuart Rosenberg’s knowing direction, the strong supporting cast. All in all, “Cool Hand Luke” is a damn fine picture that’ll stick with you. “What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate”