The Last Castle

USA, 2001. Rated R. 131 minutes.

Cast: Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo, Clifton Collins Jr., Steve Burton, Brian Goodman, Paul Calderon, Frank Military, Michael Irby, Samuel Ball, Jeremy Childs, George W. Scott, Robin Wright Penn
Writers: David Scarpa (screenplay & story), Graham Yost (screenplay)
Music: Jerry Goldsmith, Mark McKenzie (orchestrations)
Cinematographer: Shelly Johnson
Producer: Robert Lawrence
Director: Rod Lurie


Grade: C- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Once a movie critic with KABC Radio in Los Angeles, Rod Lurie decided to put his money where his mouth is a couple years ago by writing and directing his own feature-length film--something most movie critics only dream of doing. That film was the unconventionally ambiguous and austerely low-budget political drama Deterrence, which Lurie followed with another political drama, the engrossing, well-acted, and decidedly unambiguous (somewhat preachy, in fact) The Contender. Now comes Lurie's third film, The Last Castle, in which he is for the first time directing from someone else's script. Perhaps Lurie should have stuck to his own screenplays. The Last Castle has high production values, solid performances, and some timely flag waving, but all it disguises is a castleful of clichés.

Like the court martialed inmates at the maximum security military prison The Castle, Graham Yost (Speed) and newcomer David Scarpa ought be drummed out of the Screenwriters Guild for criminally negligent writing. Not only is the script a roll call of prison-movie conventions, but it also contains inexplicable character behavior and some pretentious business about what makes a castle. (Location, protection, a garrison, and a flag.) Though Broken Arrow, Hard Rain, and being one of the parties responsible for Mission to Mars were not enough to kill his career, sooner or later the cache Yost earned with Speed has got to run out.

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The movie begins promisingly enough, with the arrival at The Castle of renowned three-star general Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), a master tactician and published author sentenced to ten years for disobeying orders, which resulted in several deaths. The initial encounter between Irwin and autocratic prison warden Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini) is delicious. Winter has so much admiration for Irwin, he doesn't know what to do. He can't treat Irwin any differently from the other prisoners and maintain respect for his rules, but… he really wants to. While fetching his copy of Irwin's book for Irwin to autograph, however, Winter overhears Irwin making a disparaging remark about him to his subordinate Captain Peretz (Steve Burton). You almost feel sorry for him as he visibly deflates.

Gandolfini, who spent his entire career hamming it up in minor mob roles before landing The Sopranos, seems determined to underplay everything now. His Colonel Winter is a work of artful subtlety. With dogged resolution, Gandolfini insists on depicting Winter as a complex and multifaceted individual long after the script abandons any such conceit--which it does all too quickly. We soon learn that Winter doesn't mind popping a few bullets in prisoners' heads to maintain discipline, which seems preposterous in this day and age.Robert Redford Even in maximum security facilities, the shooting of prisoners is thoroughly investigated, and any pattern of such executions would be soon noticed, one would think. But no, it takes Irwin to stand up for justice. It's only a matter of time before Irwin rallies the prisoners in a crusade to get warden Winter relieved of command.

Redford knows about prison crusades, having played a crusading warden twenty years ago in Brubaker. Now he's on the other side of the fence, portraying Irwin with one of his many Strong Silent Guy performances. Irwin wins the prisoners over by… well, by being a Strong Silent Guy. All it takes is a Feat of Strength, a Display of Determination, and a few well-placed words about self respect, and Irwin has got his maximum security misfits saluting and taking pride in their meaningless prison work. Winter can't abide the fact that he's not the only authority figure at The Castle anymore, and so he and Irwin square off in the usual (and unlikely) escalating sequence of defiances, punishments, and reprisals. It's interesting how, in the movies, the good guys are always inside the maximum security prisons and the bad guys outside of them. Is our criminal justice system really that messed up?

The Last Castle remains watchable, though, thanks to the work of Gandolfini and the supporting cast. In particular, as prison bookie Clifford Yates, the only prisoner who doesn't buy into Irwin's prison-movie malarkey, Mark Ruffalo shows that he's worthy of the critical acclaim he earned with You Can Count on Me. Unfortunately, Yates is inconsistently drawn, as he eventually makes a unexplained critical decision that is completely at odds with the character to whom we have been introduced. Another standout is Clifton Collins, Jr. as dimwitted, stammering Corporal Ramon Aguilar. Without anyone noticing thus far, Collins has quietly become one of Hollywood's most versatile and in-demand character actors. He's probably best known to audiences as the hit man captured by Benicio del Toro in Traffic, and later hired by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Sometimes credited as Clifton González González, Collins also had major roles in Tigerland (as Miter, the squad leader who gets the psychiatric discharge), Price of Glory, and 187.

The efforts of the cast do not change the fact that The Last Castle is a bit of a snooze, however. Efforts to build dramatic tension are undermined by the film's utter predictability, and efforts to create some escapist fun are thwarted by its unsuccessful dramatic ambitions. The bottom line is: The Last Castle is not provocative for a drama and not rousing enough for an action movie.

Review © November 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Dreamworks LLC and its related entities. All Rights Reserved

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