"The Last Castle," directed by Rod Lurie (2000's "The Contender"), is a cut-and-paste job that mostly holds your attention while showing you just how bad a movie can be that stars big screen icon Robert Redford (1998's "The Horse Whisperer"). Gradually setting up a battle of wits between an incarcerated general and a cowardly prison warden, the picture dissolves into a patently ridiculous, atrociously silly action yarn by the final 30 minutes, along the lines of 1991's "Toy Soldiers" and 1997's "Masterminds." Not only are the late plot developments excessive, but they uncover both feuding men as unhinged, psychotic individuals who are fighting a lost cause.
Highly praised general Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) has just been sent to a prison called "The Castle" to ride out a 10-year sentence for disobeying an Executive Order. Irwin plans to make his stay as uneventful as possible, but can't bear to just stand back and watch as Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), the prison warden, violates the rules and tyrannically orders guards to kill prisoners whenever he feels like it. Irwin sets out to gain the trust of the other inmates and overrun the prison grounds to prove to Winter just how despicable he is to other people and his coveted job position.
"The Last Castle" is engrossing for a while, aided by top-notch performances from Robert Redford and James Gandolfini (2001's "The Mexican"), but it gets more and more preposterous as it goes on. The patriotic, flag-waving sentiment behind Rod Lurie's direction may arguably be what some people want in these current hard times, but it is violently jammed down the viewer's throat and lacks even a slight modicum of subtlety.
Winter is misguidedly set up as the villain because, while he does do deplorable things throughout, Irwin ends up committing criminal acts of his own. Irwin is presented as the hero, but it's difficult to root for a man who proves just as unstable by the protracted finale in which he, along with the other inmates, attack the guards and officers with everything from concrete to fire. Instead of the dumbed-down climax that includes explosions, helicopter attacks, and guns, screenwriters David Scarpa and Graham Yost (2000's "Mission to Mars") should have realized how much more effective the story could have played out with Irwin using his intellect to overpower the emotionally weak Winter. As is, the implausabilities sink the crafty premise.
At 64, Robert Redford still obtains the charisma and handsomeness that he did twenty years ago, and he doesn't even look too bad without his shirt on. He attempts to portray Irwin as a kind, strong man who refuses to stay quiet about the terrible things that go down in The Castle, but the actions he takes are, instead, that of someone who has a few screws loose. James Gandolfini is excellent as Winter, giving a dignified performance of a man who is anything but.
The talented Mark Ruffalo (2000's "You Can Count on Me") also is showcased well as a fellow inmate who is propositioned a shorter stay by Winter if he will act as a snitch to Irwin's planned operation. Finally, Delroy Lindo (2000's "Gone in Sixty Seconds") and Robin Wright Penn (2001's "The Pledge") turn in about a day's work each. The latter has an utterly superfluous role as Irwin's estranged daughter, who visits him near the beginning of the film only to never be mentioned again.
"The Last Castle" is messy, saccharine filmmaking without any rhyme or reason for being made. The film moves on a tolerably unexceptional line until it collapses into a big action setpiece that loses sight of its sole purpose. Those searching for a mature prison drama need to look no further than 1999's "The Green Mile" or 1994's "The Shawshank Redemption." Both offer the same satisfying, emotionally rewarding viewing experience that "The Last Castle" attempts, but embarrasses itself in the process.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman