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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 19, 2001

Movie Scene
Last Castle is formulaic, standard-issue prison drama

By Marshall Fine
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

THE LAST CASTLE (Rated R for profanity, and graphic violence) Two-and-One-Half Stars (Fair-to-Good)

Only the star power of Robert Redford and the acting of James Gandolfini elevate this otherwise standard-issue army prison drama. Starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Rod Lurie. DreamWorks Pictures, 115 mins.

"The Last Castle" employs such a standard-issue story that you almost expect to see the words "Prison Plot" stenciled in the background.

The fact that director Rod Lurie makes it work as well as he does has less to do with the script by David Scarpa and Graham Yost than with the star power of Robert Redford and the performance by James Gandolfini as his tormentor.

Otherwise, this is one in a long line of movies about men in prison who are forced to become leaders and show their fellow inmates how to reclaim their own humanity. From "Cool Hand Luke" to "The Longest Yard" to "The Shawshank Redemption," we've been here before and we know how it comes out.

Though there are pleasures to be had in "Last Castle," there are few surprises. From the moment Redford walks on screen, you know what the finale of this film has to be.

Redford plays former U.S. Army Gen. Eugene Irwin who, after pleading guilty, has been court-martialed and convicted of insubordination in a failed mission that cost the lives of several men. He is sent to the Castle, a maximum-security military prison overseen by Col. Winter (Gandolfini), a seemingly cultured martinet with a slight lisp.

He also has a chip on his shoulder at what he detects as Irwin's condescension toward him. Which leads to the expected "I'm-going-to-show-you-who's-boss" sequences, which are followed, of course, by the equally obligatory "You-may-be-boss-but-you-can't-break-my-spirit" chain of events.

The film makes it clear from the start that Irwin is a giant among men whose career has been sacrificed to politics and who is taking this downturn after a great career with the stoic toughness you'd expect. When it comes to a question of who gives off the stronger scent of leadership between Irwin and Winter, well, guess who wins?

When Irwin realizes that Winter is a dangerous despot who is endangering the lives of prisoners, he can't resist trying to alleviate the situation. He appeals to his fellow inmates' innate sense of being soldiers to try to instill pride in them, something Winter can't make rules against.

By the time Winter realizes that Irwin plans to command a prison uprising in order to get Winter replaced, the audience is so far ahead of him that, perhaps, they should be passing out applications at the door for careers in penal justice.

This isn't bad movie-making but it's certainly not inspired. Lurie (whose last film was "The Contender") has a visceral sense of story-telling, capturing the heightened emotions of men in a cage. But even he can't elevate this formulaic plot into stirring entertainment.

Sure, it's entertaining, in that comfortable way of watching a TV rerun in which you know how it comes out. It's enjoyable to see the leathery, weathered Redford back in action as this reticent hero. And Gandolfini seems to have fun playing this anal-retentive, slightly prissy warden. He gives the film its real tension: between his own hero-worship of Irwin and his humiliation at being disrespected by his idol.

Otherwise, "The Last Castle" is strictly a connect-the-dots prison drama, one that knows the cliches of the form and employs every one of them.

Rated R for profanity, and graphic violence.