The Last Castle
2001, R, 120 min. Directed by Rod Lurie. Starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo, Steve Burton, George Scott.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 19, 2001
Some films just leave you puzzled, and The Last Castle is one of them. The movie is the story of a three-star general, Eugene Irwin (Redford), who lands in a fortress-like military prison and promptly goes head-to-head with the warden, Col. Winter (Gandolfini), while simultaneously teaching his fellow inmates a thing or two about self-respect. It seems a simple film on the outside, full of earnest bluster and noble savages, but director Lurie (The Contender), working from a script by David Scarpa and Graham Yost, parcels out information about the steely, iconic protagonist in such pitiful dribs and drabs that the film is well past the halfway mark before we even know why Gen. Irwin is incarcerated in the first place. And when that information comes, Lurie stages what ought to have been an emotionally charged and shocking set-piece with all the vigor of a man mulling a shopping list. Oh, so that's it, you think to yourself. Huh. Redford, even on his very worst days, of which there have been precious few, is an actor of tremendous solidity. His face (and body, too, which is used to excellent effect in one powerful sequence that recalls nothing so much as old pal Paul Newman's egg-eating contest in Cool Hand Luke) has become weathered over the years. Here he looks like a man who's run into too many bureaucratic stonewalls head-first, and he seems almost reptilian in the chilly, patient calm that face radiates. So the problem isn't with Redford, nor is it with Gandolfini -- at least not entirely. He's asked to make Col. Winter into a bad guy, kin to Bob Gunton's Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption, but Col. Winter just isn't that evil, when you come right down to it. Misguided, certainly, but no devil's pawn. Another odd thing is that this prison seems to house no truly bad criminals, just disgraced soldiers. Everyone is willing to lend Gen. Irwin a hand in the end, even Mark Ruffalo's duplicitous bookmaker, and so we lose any sort of threat apart from Winter. Weird. Ruffalo, actually, who was so perfect in the little-seen You Can Count On Me, is the only real reason to sit through The Last Castle. He's just coming into his own as an actor, and he shines here as he did in that previous film. Other than that, the film hardly makes a case for any more castles, metaphorical or otherwise.