Cool Hand Luke remains a very cool film, thanks to Paul Newman’s memorable portrayal of the titular loser who endures life on a chain gang without losing his perspective, drive, and self-respect. Director Stuart Rosenberg’s affecting character portrait and damning indictment of the penal system looks and sounds better than ever, thanks to a terrific 4K UHD transfer with HDR and a long-overdue lossless audio track, both of which never fail to communicate the power of this timeless film. Highly Recommended.
The release of Cool Hand Luke in 4K UHD in honor of Warner Bros' 100th anniversary seems especially fitting. Not only does director Stuart Rosenberg's acclaimed portrait of a lonesome loser who stubbornly rebels against the brutality that pervades a Florida prison merit celebration in its own right, it also honors the social issue films that put the studio on the map, most notably 1932's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which it closely resembles. Starring Paul Newman in one of his most identifiable roles and featuring a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning performance by George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke bridges the gap between the studio-centric productions of Hollywood's heyday and the edgy realism that would soon define 1970s cinema and revolutionize the film industry.
My former colleague Peter Bracke wrote an eloquent review of Cool Hand Luke back in 2008 that reflects my feelings about the movie as well. Here is his take on this absorbing and affecting film:
In a storied career full of classics - from The Hustler to The Sting to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 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 coolly-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 films 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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Cool Hand Luke arrIves on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. The 2008 Blu-ray and a leaflet containing the Movies Anywhere digital copy code are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
This 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR is a big improvement over the 2008 Blu-ray, which looks flat, dull, and lifeless by comparison. Though it doesn’t seem as if this is a new master - and the press material doesn’t tout one - the enhanced clarity and contrast and bolder colors produce a vibrant image that looks freshly minted and faithfully honors the cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Conrad Hall. The natural grain structure has been left intact and both preserves the organic feel of film and supplies necessary texture that complements the gritty prison atmosphere. The reflections in the boss’ mirrored sunglasses are razor sharp, the blades of straw that litter the landscape are well defined, and crisp close-ups highlight all the glistening sweat, pores, stubble, dirt, pick marks, and blemishes on the convicts’ faces.
Blacks are deep and rich, whites are bright and resist blooming, and excellent shadow delineation heightens the impact of dark and nocturnal scenes. While the color palette of Cool Hand Luke is rather muted, HDR adds punch to the hues on display. Blues predominate, with the prisoners’ denim work shirts and the crystal blue sky often dominating the frame, but verdant green fields and foliage, and dabs of red in various signs also look lush and vivid. Flesh tones appear natural much of the time, but occasionally adopt an orange tinge, and not a single nick, mark, errant scratch, or speck of dirt dots the pristine source material. Cool Hand Luke has never looked better on home video and this stellar Ultra HD presentation is very worthy of an upgrade.
At last, Cool Hand Luke gets a lossless audio track. The previous Blu-ray release featured the original mono track in lossy Dolby Digital, which Bracke termed merely "acceptable." (Though the packaging of this release states the included Blu-ray contains a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track, that is not the case.) The 4K UHD disc provides a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that flaunts far more fidelity and presence than its predecessor. A wide dynamic scale gives the Oscar-nominated music score by Lalo Schifrin plenty of room to breathe and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like gunfire, fisticuffs, and revving truck engines are distinct and subtle atmospherics nicely shade the action. Bass frequencies are strong, no distortion creeps into the mix, and any age-related imperfections have been erased. A vast improvement over the Blu-ray's audio, this track finally brings Cool Hand Luke into the 21st century.
Because the 2008 Blu-ray disc is contained within this 4K UHD release, all the extras are included as well. The audio commentary is also accessible on the 4K UHD disc. Here's what Bracke wrote about the supplements in his 2008 Blu-ray review:
Audio Commentary - Typical of special editions of vintage titles (where most of the original cast and crew are, sadly, deceased), Warner has recruited a notable historian to provide commentary. Here it is Paul Newman biographer Eric Lax. He's typically fawning of his subject, focusing almost solely on Newman's participation and where Cool Hand Luke rests in his career. There are some on-set stories peppered throughout, but again, this is largely about Newman. Given the film's two-hour runtime, it's a bit much.
Documentary: "A Natural-Born World Shaker: The Making of Cool Hand Luke" (SD, 28 minutes) - Barely earning its doc status with a slim half-hour runtime, this is still the best extra of the set. Though Paul Newman doesn't appear (guess he's covered by the commentary?), we do get fresh interviews with director Stuart Rosenberg, screenwriter Frank Pierson, author Donn Pearce, composer Lalo Schifrin, and actors George Kennedy, Lou Antonio, Ralph Waite and Anthony Zerbe, amongst others. Though some of the stories veer on the banal (do we really need a discussion on just how many eggs Newman actually ate?), the basics are all covered, and it's certainly much more compact and digestible than the audio commentary.
Theatrical Trailer (HD) - Finally, we have the film's original theatrical trailer in full HD.
A devastating portrait of perseverance, individuality, and honor in the face of adversity, Cool Hand Luke remains one of Paul Newman’s best films, and this top-notch 4K UHD presentation amps up the power of his captivating portrayal. What we have here is an excellent video transfer with HDR and a long-overdue lossless audio track, both of which make this 100th anniversary release from Warner Home Video well worth an upgrade. Highly Recommended.