Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 13, 2008)
For some vintage Paul Newman, we head to 1967ís Cool Hand Luke. Newman plays Lucas Jackson, a neíer-do-well who ends up on a prison chain gang after he lops the tops off parking meters during a drunken escapade. Captain (Strother Martin) runs the camp with a heavy hand; virtually any transgression sends the inmate to ďthe boxĒ, a severe method of solitary confinement.
Lucas immediately shows his rebellious nature as he gets to know the other inmates. He stays aloof from the others but eventually earns their respect due to his refusal to back down from a situation, and his extreme poker face earns him the nickname ďCool Hand LukeĒ from inmate leader Dragline (George Kennedy). We follow Lukeís life in the camp and his peculiar adventures.
From very early in Luke, I thought back to an earlier film with another anti-hero: 1954ís The Wild One. Other than his general disdain for authority, Marlon Brandoís motorcycle-riding bad boy Johnny doesnít have all that much in common with Luke, but the filmís iconic dialogue presages this oneís lead character: when asked what heís rebelling against, Johnny replies, ďWhaddya got?Ē
At first, Luke seems aimlessly rebellious; after all, he becomes imprisoned for the pointless amusement that comes from his parking meter decapitation spree. As the film progresses, though, we see more of a purpose, though not a positive one. Luke seems relentlessly self-destructive. He appears to act due to self-loathing, not because of a purposeful assault on authority.
After I watched the flick, I checked out some reviews because I was curious to see other interpretations. Most that I found saw Luke as an inspirational anti-authority figure and a Christ figure. Maybe Iím off base, but I donít agree with the view that weíre supposed to interpret Luke in that way.
To be sure, the flick wants us to observe the Biblical parallels. Heck, after Luke downs 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour, he even strikes a pose obviously modeled after Jesus on the cross. Other similarities occur as well, so I can understand the Christ comparisons.
However, I donít think Luke is that simple. In fact, I view it as more of a parody of the Christ story, not a basic adaptation of it. For one, Luke isnít exactly an admirable figure. Where some see him as a free spirit who challenges mindless authority, I view him as a self-destructive loner with no real philosophy or purpose. When he inspires others, he does inadvertently, and he resists their adulation.
To some degree, Luke can be seen as part of the anti-authoritarian trend of its era. The late 1960s combated against mindless obedience, and the flick reflects that. However, the anti-hero of Luke can come across as stupidly oppositional. He performs actions that serve little purpose other than to harm himself. These indirectly inspire his cohorts, but they usually get caught in the crossfire as well. We see this when Dragline impulsively follows Luke on an adventure even though it seems unlikely to end well and will postpone his not-too-distant exit from prison.
All of this makes Luke a complicated movie, partially because it includes almost literally no admirable characters. We find a selfish, self-loathing lead, sadistic jailers and hypocritical inmates. I donít think we can empathize with any of them. Even though we feel the pain of the prisoners due to the excessive cruelty of their keepers, they blow our sympathy through their general idiocy.
Luke himself tends to inspire pity more than admiration. We get an excellent performance by Newman. He fleshes out Luke in a charismatic and enigmatic manner that turns him into even more of an enigma. Normally a performance of this sort would accompany a heroic, inspirational character, but Luke is decidedly more complex than that.
As is the film as a whole. Cool Hand Luke isnít an easily accessible flick, largely due to the absence of clear plot or likable characters. Nonetheless, it creates an involving, thought-provoking piece, one that should hold up to repeated viewings.