By Michael Dequina | October 22, 2001

All outward appearances indicate class: a cast toplined by Robert Redford and James Gandolfini; a director who coaxed two Oscar-nominated performances in his last film; a release slot in the vicinity of those of previous–and successful–DreamWorks Oscar hopefuls, American Beauty and Almost Famous. Rod Lurie’s “The Last Castle” is, instead, all crass in its empty bluster and bogus uplift.
Redford, looking rather fit from the neck down, plays General Irwin, who as the film begins is transferred to the castle-like (hence the title) military prison run by Colonel Winter (Gandolfini, doing his best in a role that doesn’t call for it). A showdown between the disgraced war hero and the iron-fisted warden is anticipated from the get-go, but what isn’t is the stunningly ridiculous way in which Lurie and writers David Scarpa and Graham Yost fire up the friction. Winter, an admirer of Irwin’s exploits as a soldier and a writer, leaves Irwin in a room with a subordinate (Steve Burton) to fetch his copy of Irwin’s book, so the general can sign it. Just as he is about to reenter the room, Winter overhears Irwin call his extensive collection of antique combat artifacts the work of someone who’s never known true combat. And with this rather oblique, barely stinging sort-of insult, an overblown war of wits begins.
Make that “wit,” for the buffoonish Winter is so clearly outmatched by Irwin, who can apparently not only do wrong but never has any doubt in his mind about succeeding in his cause. And what is that, exactly? Apparently Winter’s been doing a crappy job of running his facility for a long time, but we never see any particularly objectionable behavior until that fateful eavesdropped conversation, which apparently cuts so deep that Winter becomes a sadist virtually overnight. Irwin wants no less than the warden’s resignation, and so natural a leader is Irwin that he not only is able to anticipate Winter’s every dispicable move, he knows exactly the right thing to do and say to get his way; after some laughably pompous speechifying, he has the entire inmate population eating out of his hand.
That is, the entire population except surly prison bookie Yates (the gifted rising star Mark Ruffalo, who deserves a better mainstream splash than this tripe), who for a good portion of the film’s run time is actually the most likable and relatable character. Whenever Irwin launches into one of his long-winded, ham-fisted rallying cries (and are there ever a lot of those), Yates is in the background doing exactly what the audience is doing: rolling his eyes in disbelief. How disappointing it is, then, when Yates makes a turn. That’s not giving anything away, for after all I’ve already established that Irwin’s perfectly-pitched powers of psychological seduction are the envy of any cult leader.
As ridiculous as it is, all the egomaniacal grandstanding is just a warm-up for “The Last Castle”‘s truly overheated third act, when the boiling bluster becomes Bruckheimer-ish boom-boom bombast. The inmates revolt with “A-Team”-like homemade weapons; numerous structures are blown up or destroyed in spectacular fashion; a helicopter crashes, setting up that old action movie standby, the slo-mo run-explosion-dive. Not only is the action amped up in this final stretch, so are the dramatic pretensions, to unintended comic effect. The supposedly uplifting (literally and figuratively) finale is so overwrought that it plays as either cheap pandering to the hyper-patriotic mindset of the country right now or a gross parody of it. The latter can be said of “The Last Castle”; it lays everything on so thick that the film becomes a rather comical exaggeration of all it’s supposed to be.

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