A surprisingly bittersweet, comedic "Cool Hand Luke,""Life" is more than just an Eddie Murphy comedy or a Martin Lawrencecomedy. It's actually layered with substance and is even affecting in itsportrayal of the bitterness, depression and fleeting moments of happinessexperienced by two falsely imprisoned bootleggers, doing life for a murderthey didn't commit.
I'm not saying Murphy and Lawrence aren't damn funny. Ofcourse they are. But for the first time in either of their careers, they'reboth called on to truly submerge themselves in real characters, and thesetwo comedians with trademark personalities come through remarkably.
Murphy plays a con man and Lawrence a bank clerk rube whoare framed for murder by white cops while on a moonshine run in Mississippi,trying to save their skins from a gangster (funk star Rick James) theyhad both run afoul of at home in New York.
A great augmentative screen pair from their first scenetogether, their love-hate friendship ping-pongs throughout the story, whichspans patches of their prison stay from a quickie, Depression Era convictionthrough to their infirmary years as old men.
Written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone ("DestinyTurns On the Radio") with a eye for avoiding too many cliches, "Life"contains no characters from central casting. The supporting cast of inmateswith silly nicknames -- prison couple Jangle Leg and Biscuit (Bernie Mac,Miguel A. Nunez, Jr.), dim bulb baseball prodigy Can't Get Right (BokeemWoodbine), etc. -- and even the warden (Nick Cassavetes) and his cholericyes man, Hoppin' Bob (Brent Jennings), are developed into more than juststock players.
With such unexpectedly creative characters to work withand a script of humor mixed with sobriety, inconsistent director Ted Demme("Monument Ave.," "Beautiful Girls") rises to the occasionalong with his two stars.
The picture is smartly paced and edited, often jumpingahead by decades and skipping over repetitive escape attempts, which areplayed up in the narration. It turns all the more creative and comedicwhen faced with material that's either obligatory (the inevitable racism,the prison yard fight scene) or pilfered ("Cool Hand Luke" isinvoked so often this could almost be considered a remake).
Demonstrating Demme's drive to get something more thangeneric yuks out of "Life," the film is also instilled with apalpable Southern flavor. It has a hot, humid atmosphere and peeled paintprison barracks with rusty wire gates.
Ultimately it's Murphy's and Lawrence's movie, though,and in years to come it may be pointed to as point at which they beganmaturing into more adult movies.
"Life" certainly has its flaws -- for instance,different takes in some argument scenes are painfully obvious and the oldman makeup used last couple reels is waxy and stiff -- but what countshere is the surprising quality of the performances and the even more unexpecteddepth.
Put on auto-pilot, "Life" could have been justanother low-brow comedy aimed insultingly at inner-city audiences. Butwith the care that was invested in the movie at every level, it insteadbecame a refreshingly sincere -- and yes, funny -- movie that might, ifit makes money, even advance the cause of better black mainstream cinema.
(PS: Stay for the credits. The out-takes are a riot.)