Archive for Wednesday, October 17, 2001

King of the ‘Castle’

October 17, 2001

Like the high stone walls of the title structure, director Rod Lurie's "The Last Castle" can be stately but sometimes seem a little too stiff for its own good. As with his last effort "The Contender," Lurie imposes so much gravity on his film (with somber music and other touches) that it is almost denied a chance to stand on its own.

To be fair, the director is a graduate of West Point, so he does understand enough about military protocol and lingo to create a convincing look inside a prison loaded with disgraced former soldiers. Joining the inmates is a newly court-martialed general named Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford). Before his incarceration, Irwin was a revered leader who could write textbooks about commanding based on a good understanding of military theory and his own heroics on the battlefield.

Even in a lowly place like the prison, Irwin's leadership instincts quickly take root. The institution is run by a commandant named Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini, "The Sopranos"), who toys with the inmates on his watch. Winter has his subordinates put only one basketball in the exercise yard just to get some of the prisoners to start fights. When Irwin, who is far older than the others, manages to survive Winter's draconian punishments (having withstood conditions in a North Vietnamese prison camp, this is easy), the men in the yards turn to him as if he were still in uniform. By treating his fellow former soldiers with a respect they haven't had in years, he quickly becomes a threat to Winter's authority.

The setup scripted by David Scarpa and Graham Yost ("Speed") might have had more potency if the conflict between the two men weren't presented so broadly. We don't know much about Winter other than he likes classical music and collecting battlefield artifacts (the latter of which combat vet Irwin considers callous and morbid). The talented Gandolfini has little to work with because Winter is a one-note sadist.

Thankfully, the actor wisely underplays the role, preventing "The Last Castle" from sinking into farce. Redford, however, thrives on his larger-than-life character. The 64-year-old's pretty boy days are past him, but the well-preserved star does project a quiet authority that makes Irwin's rise to power become not only credible but inevitable. Redford never gets into shouting matches with Gandolfini or the other thespians, and there is a noticeable lack of "Oscar Clips." Redford has merely to stroll in front of the camera and say a few snappy lines to take command of the screen. There aren't many other actors who could make Irwin's righteousness so convincing, but Redford appears so clean and scrubbed that he can tell an off-color joke and still be untainted.

The supporting cast is generally solid. Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count on Me") has some fine moments as a prison bookie, but Clifton Collins Jr.'s turn as a stuttering former corporal is a little too mannered. For some reason, the filmmakers want to perpetuate the annoying cinematic clichhat stammerers are always cute, lovable people.

The pacing around the early portions of the film is a tad slack. It thankfully accelerates once Irwin begins to "mobilize" his troops in earnest. The finale is rousing, but a hand-to-hand showdown on a helicopter, while fun in a sophomoric way, almost betrays the sense of authenticity the filmmakers have worked to achieve. The solemnity that runs through a good chunk of "The Last Castle" would be easier to believe if consistent credibility weren't taken so lightly.

  • *1/2
  • "The Last Castle" is rated R.

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