Robert Redford, in his first acting role since 1998's The Horse Whisperer, plays venerable three-star General and war hero Eugene Irwin, a soldier who quickly pleads guilty in his court martial, resulting in a ten year sentence to an unnamed military prison. When hearing of Irwin's impending arrival, head warden Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini) is astounded, saying they should be naming a base after the guy, not locking him up for a decade.
Lurie effectively sets the tone between these two men early in The Last Castle, staging an introduction in Winter's office that plays out with equal parts respect, fear, and trepidation. In one of Gandolfini's finer moments in the film, he politely provides the General due consideration, while still trying to flex his muscles as the new commanding officer. The mind games between the two escalate quickly, and with much less over-the-top fanfare than in The Contender.
What follows for plot is fairly typical: Colonel Winter, although hard-working, is abusive and corrupt; Prisoner Irwin is a humble, smart man made of steel, knowing that the system must change (see also Redford's warden in Brubaker); and a prison full of ex-soldiers are looking for a mentor and hero. You know where this is going (and if you don't, just read the movie's tagline -- "A castle can only have one king." Ugh.)
But predictability doesn't necessarily lead to boredom in this case. As the screenplay -- by first-timer David Scarpa, with help from Graham Yost (Mission to Mars, Broken Arrow) -- moves us toward the inevitable final showdown, The Last Castle slowly turns into a fantasy-styled action movie. As long as you can suspend disbelief, and you'll need to in this case, there's a surprisingly exciting bang-'em-up charge waiting for you. You just have to believe that one small fistfight in a maximum security military prison would confuse the jailors enough to leave a couple of hundred men alone in a mess hall. That kind of stuff.
The Last Castle also gets weighed down by some of the same problems seen in The Contender. Lurie's heavy hand results in a few dramatic scenes that almost play for laughs, and his patriotic, jingoistic streak comes screaming through, with help from Jerry Goldsmith's fife-and-drum style background music, slow-motion shots of the American flag, and monologues about pride and courage. It is incredible timing for this film to be released during a period of such widespread patriotism in America. But perhaps Lurie and the writers might have thought twice about glorifying a bunch of hard-nosed criminals, military or not.
Once you let the realism go (or lack of it), it's fun to see the Colonel get his just desserts, and Redford, just fine as the movie's true leader, shows us what real heroism is all about. Just make sure to consider this film about as likely a scenario as Robert Redford actually being in a military prison (of course, Lurie is a man who had the president launching nukes from a Colorado diner in Deterrence). Then, wait for the fighting to start and the walls to crumble.
Two castles down, one to go.
Run time: 131 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th October 2001
Box Office USA: $17.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $27.6M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 52%
Fresh: 59 Rotten: 55
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Rod Lurie
Producer: Robert Lawrence
Starring: Robert Redford as Lt. Gen. Eugene Irwin, James Gandolfini as Col. Winter, Mark Ruffalo as Yates, Steve Burton as Cap. Peretz, Delroy Lindo as Gen. Wheeler, Paul Calderon as Dellwo, Samuel Ball as Duffy, Jeremy Childs as Cutbush, George W. Scott as Thumper, Clifton Collins, Jr. as Cp. Ramov Aguilar
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