Rated R - Running Time: 2:11 - Released 10/19/01

The latest film from movie critic-turned-director Rod Lurie, who helmed one of last year's best films, The Contender, is David Scarpa's story The Last Castle, adapted for the screen by freshman Scarpa and veteran Graham Yost (who's written episodes of HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon and Band Of Brothers and feature films Speed and Mission To Mars). Starring Robert Redford (doffing the producer/director hats for this one) and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos, The Mexican), it tells the story of a military prison taken over by its inmates in an unlikely but nonetheless gripping tactical battle full of chess-related references.

Redford stars as highly decorated and published combat veteran and 3-star General Eugene Irwin, who has recently pleaded guilty to a charge of disobeying orders and therefore faces several years in the U.S. Military Correctional Facility, nicknamed "The Castle" for its uncanny resemblance to the Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World. "Most castles are built to keep people out," he states in an opening voiceover. "This one was designed to keep people in." While the prison's commandant, Col. Winter (Gandolfini), and virtually all its inmates are respectful of Irwin's distinguished career, they are also aware that when he enters the USMCF, he becomes just another prisoner, equal to them all. Although at first he states his desire to simply "serve his time and go home," the men begin telling him of atrocities that have occurred in the prison, including the "accidental" murders of inmates by the guards with rubber bullets, ordered by Winter. "When those bullets hit you in the head, the lights go out," one prisoner states.

After watching a friendly inmate (Clifton Collins Jr.) be murdered in exactly this fashion, Irwin decides to rally the men and take control. He assembles a varied group of former officers, including ex-helicopter pilot Clifford Yates (Mark Ruffalo), whose father spent 6 years with Irwin in the famous "Hanoi Hilton" prison during the Vietnam war. When Winter hears of this, he makes a deal with the jaded and opportunistic Yates to sell the general out in exchange for a shortened sentence. What follows is a literal game of "Capture The Flag," with the prison troops using various makeshift weapons (rocks, Molotov cocktails, homemade catapults) to overcome the colonel's command and the success of the mission riding primarily on Yates's allegiance. Under the capable hand of director Lurie, the film progresses from sweatily realistic tension to heart-pounding improbability.

I have complained before about Redford's inability to express emotion; that is perhaps why this role of the coldly calculating, battle-hardenend veteran, an ancient stereotype seen in all military movies, is so perfect for him. As Irwin, he exudes quiet confidence (not only in himself, but in his men) and thereby inspires them to great lengths. Gandolfini is equally effective in the role of the corrupt and sadistic warden, an ancient stereotype seen in all prision-related movies. Also on hand, and also effective, are Delroy Lindo as Irwin's friend and fellow general on the outside, and Robin Wright as his emotionally distant daughter. The action is exciting and realistic, except where it is grossly unbelievable, which is during most of the final reel. The unlikely nature of the events and the occasionally overblown writing style are generally outweighed by the quality of the performances, however, and if you're into prison movies, military movies, or stuff blowing up, you'll probably not regret dropping the admission price on this one. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail