According to its press notes, "The Last Castle" is about the character
of leadership. That, at least, is the line director Rod Lurie used to
convince Robert Redford to sign on the dotted line. From my chair, the
film is a silly, pretentious and generally entertaining yarn about the
pissing war between a fallen leader and a wannabe. The names Robert
Redford and James Gandolfini may lead one to expect something profound,
but the film is essentially a Grade B thriller cut from the same cloth
as "Taps" or "Toy Soldiers." Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Three-star Army General Irwin (Redford) disobeyed a direct order that
resulted in the death of several soldiers. Irwin admits his guilt and
makes no excuses; that's the kind of man he is. Sentenced to seven
years, he is sent to The Castle, a military prison ruled by the iron
fist of Colonel Winter (Gandolfini), a man with no battle experience who
collects military implements.
Are you getting the picture? Accepting guilt for disobeying orders =
Hero. Filling display cases with battle regalia when you have no battle
experience = Poseur.
At first, Winter views Irwin with awe. He is relieved to hear that his
revered prisoner wants only to do his time and go home. All is well
until he gives Irwin a tour of his office and shows off his war toys.
While Winter is called away briefly, Irwin chats with an aide and quotes
a disparaging remark his father once made about non-combatants who
collect weapons. Winter returns to the area just in time to hear the
latter part of the quote and assumes Irwin has just taken a shot at him.
Oops, looks like the honeymoon is over.
Over the next few days, Irwin gets acquainted with his fellow prisoners,
particularly Yates (Mark Ruffalo), cynic and resident prison bookmaker,
and Aguilar (Clifton Collins Jr.), a wide-eyed hero worshipper who may
as well have the word "martyr" stitched to his uniform.
Irwin soon galvanizes the men. Forced to spend the day moving rocks as a
punishment, he struggles but refuses to quit, winning the respect of the
few prisoners that did not already bow down before him. Fed up with
Winter's pattern of inhumane treatment, Irwin makes a decision: He will
organize the men, take over the prison and fly the flag in the
upside-down distress position to force the removal of Winter.
The build up to the grand confrontation is patently ridiculous, which
keeps matters fun. There is a hard rule against inmates saluting one
another, so the boys come up with a twist – a man snaps his hand into
the salute position, but at the last second runs his fingers through his
hair, just like Fonzie used to do. The men are also forbidden to address
each other by rank, so they use substitute terms like "chief" instead of
"general," "boss" instead of "captain" and so on. Winter is helpless to
stop them from using the new gestures and words, so we get to witness a
prisoner honoring a superior officer by saying, "Thank you, chief" while
giving him a hearty Fonzie.
Oh, what remarkable prisoners they are. Presumably, some of these guys
are sociopaths, rapists, child molesters and murderers, but under the
influence of Chief Irwin, they become a unified force ready to risk life
and limb and lengthier sentences to bring down the warden.
The absurdity goes down easier thanks to the skill of the key players.
James Gandolfini, taking a break from his Tony Soprano persona,
amplifies the childishness of his character by over-enunciating his
words and smirking at unexpected moments. Meanwhile, Robert Redford
underplays his role, relying on his legendary charisma instead of
histrionics. Redford also sets the standard for the lighting of the
film. While his rugged good looks have defied the aging process, under
bright light his skin looks like contact paper. To adjust for this,
every camera is angled to keep his face in shadows. For the sake of
consistency, the same technique is used on most of the other actors,
giving the film an odd, but interesting, visual tone.
To the surprise of no one, the climax of the film is heavy on
coincidence, self-sacrifice, abrupt shifts in allegiance, flag waving
and, of course, explosions. Some people will likely accept "The Last
Castle" at face value and applaud its patriotic trappings. Others may
condemn director Rod Lurie for the cheesiness of it all. As for me, I
can only offer thanks for two hours of peculiar entertainment. Mr.
Lurie, I Fonzie you!
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott