Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rod Lurie

Cast: Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo, Steve Burton

MPAA Rating: (for language and violence)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 10/19/01

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Director Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle is a pure entertainment. It serves as an intense drama, an intelligent thriller, and an intriguing character study wrapped into a solidly constructed package. At its center is the conflict between two army men with different perspectives. One is a decorated General—famous throughout the armed forces—who made one error that cost him everything. The other is the warden of a military prison—never in actual combat—who does everything to keep from making a single mistake. The film takes a good amount of time setting up its central conflict, so when the inevitable confrontation breaks out in the final twenty-or-so minutes, we are so deeply invested in the scenario, the sequence packs a punch.

The film starts with a simple yet bravura narration about the elements of a castle. There are guards, garrisons, and a flag. To take a castle, one must dispose of the guards, overtake the garrisons, and finally capture the flag. We learn this from Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), the disgraced but still respected General of whom I spoke earlier. The castle of which he speaks is the prison in which he is now an inmate, and that would make the king Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), the warden whose calmness and politeness hides a more brutal side to his nature. Irwin is brought to the prison, and the inmates bet on how long it will take before he kills himself. When he is brought before Winter, the Colonel is mostly in awe of him. He tells him the rules, asks him what he wants to make of his time here, and requests that he sign a book.

The entire conflict begins immediately after when Winter overhears Irwin saying that a man with a collection of military antiques as extensive as Winter’s has never been in actual combat. Tossing the book aside, Winter says he must have misplaced it. These are two men with two completely different experiences, and one of the great things about the film is the way Redford and Gandolfini give the impression of what has happened to them up to this point in their lives. It’s obvious that Winter has heard things like that for most of his military life, and so to hear it from his hero must be a tremendous blow. In a lesser movie, the warden would simply be strict without motivation.

Little details such as this really help make this exposition stronger than it need be, and there is a lot of exposition. A scene near the beginning in which the prisoners fight over a basketball sets up the scenario in which the audience and Irwin learn of Winter’s brutality. The day after Irwin arrives, Winter only allows one basketball to be used so as to start a fight which he handles severely. It’s around this point that it is clear to Irwin that Winter must be dismissed from his position. Because we get to know these characters, we know why Winter takes away the basketball, and as the stakes grow higher, we know why either of these men do what they do. They talk to each other—build a strategy. This is one of the few times the central-conflict-as-chess-game metaphor actually worked for me.

The gradual build of the film is strong and sturdy. Both men release small details of their plans to the prisoners and to each other. Irwin explains that taking over the prison will get Winter dismissed, and Winter tells the prisoners why Irwin is there in the first place (a detail that is thankfully kept from us for a good length of time). There are a good number of predictable or clichéd scenes, but when the storytelling grabs you as much as this does, it hardly matters. By the time the final confrontation arrives, we know who will do what, why, and how it will affect the success or failure of the battle. The sequence does cheat a bit, however. Prisoners use things that come out of nowhere, although it can be assumed that because the work in the prison, the facilities and equipment are fair game to them. Either way, doubts like these come more as after-thoughts—the brain reasoning the emotions. The resolution is also comparatively weak. The script sets up a final confrontation between the two leaders but seems unsure of where to take them. The result is a finale that seems far too simple and misses a great opportunity.

Holding everything together, though, are the strong performances. Redford, now into his 60s, is still a charismatic presence, and he also is able to give us a sympathetic character with whom to follow. There is another important character named Yates, and as played by Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me), he is the audience’s grounding. Just as we are, he is unsure as to where his loyalties lie. The standout is Gandolfini, who finds his way fully into character. Gandolfini is mostly known for his role on "The Sopranos" and movie-goers may remember him as the hitman in this year’s The Mexican, but his performance here is the work of a great character actor finally given the chance to break out. This is a highly nuanced performance (just listen to his speech patterns), and it will go down as one of the best supporting roles this year (along with his work in The Mexican).

The Last Castle is great entertainment. Yes, it could have been more, but there is hardly room to complain. The film is so stylish, so efficient, so thrilling on so many levels, the flaws are most definitely after-thoughts. The experience itself is just that—an experience.

Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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