I will say this for THE LAST CASTLE, it being such a ho-hum picture it doesnt put us in the uncomfortable position in these uncertain times of dealing with the moral dilemma of enjoying a finely crafted film about American soldiers fighting among themselves. Its surprisingly dull for a film that has so many things blowing up with so much abandon.
One gets the feeling that the interesting story, the complicated character study of right and wrong was in the tale that brought Redfords character, General Irwin, to the prison. That would be how this legendary officer was court-martialed and, instead of fighting the charge, accepted responsibility for his actions that led to a military fiasco and pled guilty. Now that would have been a satisfying morality play, one without the would-be bombast, the would-be subtlety, and the would-be entertainment of what we got instead.
Under Rod Lurie’s lackluster direction, the story unfolds like a not particularly difficult connect-the-dots game. This is the part where the commandant takes a dislike to golden boy, that would, of course, be Redford. This is the part where we learn about golden boys vulnerable underbelly. This is the part where he bonds with the men because hes such a great guy. This is the part where the commandant tries to break him. This is the part where the prisoners learn a valuable life lesson about working together as a team. Etc etc ad nauseum. And because its already shoulder-deep in cliches, it tosses in a kid who stutters and who everyone picks on, plus, as an added bonus, the son of a guy who did time as a POW with Irwin in Vietnam. I kept waiting to meet the prisoner who kept birds, but he never showed and, frankly, I was disappointed.
Redford is still gorgeous, in a dried plum sort of way. Hes still got that golden glow about him that is the physical manifestation of his star quality. Of course, hes playing the same character here that he did in THE GREAT GATSBY and OUT OF AFRICA, the cooly detached hero, impervious to anything but his own will, but he does it so well and its so charming, it doesnt really matter. What does matter is that Lurie et als realized that the script was a little underwritten and without someone like Redford, there is no plausible explanation for the prisoners falling into lockstep behind him. They arent in the thrall of Irwin, no, theyre smitten with Redfords movie star magnetism. And so are we. I mean the guy still looks good with his shirt off after all these years.
Still, even to work as a piece of fluff, you need a villain of operatic proportions to balance the over-the-top finale, an egomaniac with delusions of Machiavellihood. Unfortunately, what we have here is Colonel Winter, a whiner with a bad case of low self-esteem who compensates by occasionally shooting prisoners in the head. When Irwin disses his collection of Civil War memorabilia, he goes from hero-worship to snit fit. I ask you. Snit fit. As Winter, James Gandolfino is like nothing so much as a petulant Pillsbury dough boy. With Redford as the noble but flawed Irwin, its like a match-up between Captain America and Oliver Hardy. Wheres the sturm? Wheres the drang? Apparently AWOL.
Irwin gets the guys excited about rebuilding one of the prisons original walls. Dont worry about the believability of this, its a metaphor. And it gives Irwin the chance to wax pontifical about honor. Thats just dull, even with Redfords presence, theres still that underwritten script to contend with. After a while, the guys are saluting him on the sly, even though saluting is a major infraction of the rules, so much for honor. And so much for the scripts internal logic.
In due course and on schedule, the guys have convinced Irwin to help them with their Winter problem, and hes whipped them back into military shape and then rebellion. This, it would seem, makes up for his failed relationship with daughter Robin Wright, who visits him in prison to tell him that since he was never there for her, shes not going to be there for him. No hard feelings, though, just no further contact. Yet another dot to connect without any great surge of actual character development or explanation of why she didnt lay down the law before now.
You might think that limiting the action to a prison would present a problem as far as action sequences. Think again, Sparky. We got helicopters, we got tanks, and well, slingshots and cafeteria trays, but thats not important. Whats important is the deus ex machina method of introducing the prisoners heavy artillery. I mean I can swallow home-made bazookas hidden in trash cans, though where the materials came from, much less a discussion of needing them is dispensed with. But the catapult? For those of us still paying attention at that point, the idea that it was cleverly hidden beside a building where no one, say a prison guard, would notice it is beyond the pale. One wants not so much to cheer as to giggle, especially when the army guards are confronted with the contraption and somehow dont recognize it as a catapult.
Once again, Luries lack of skill is evident as even the assault on Winters office barely rises to the level of a yawner. Plus, for some reason, even as he surveys the scene, Winter just doesnt get it that standing in front of a plate glass window in full view of the rioting prisoners might be a less than smart idea. During the final battle, prison guards are always looking the wrong way, lone prisoners can always take out two or three of them by themselves, and everybody keeps a straight face when their wall of cafeteria-tray shields actually does stave off the guards assault with rifles.
But it doesnt end there. The dramatic, climactic face-off between Irwin and Winter never quite gets past that darned Oliver Hardy problem and the swelling music as Irwin makes his final, melodramatic gesture is just silly. And so is this film.