In `Last Castle,' cast is the only royalty

No stripes: Military prison story proves too confining, even for likes of Redford, Lindo and Gandolfini.

Movie review

October 19, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Last Castle is a pea-brained dinosaur of a movie, big and stupid and lumbering. It's a mishmash of The Bridge on the River Kwai, From Here to Eternity and The Great Escape, with everything complex and entertaining siphoned off.

Robert Redford stars as a three-star Army general who embodies all military virtues except obedience. His disregard for orders and his leadership of a disastrous overseas raid land him in a military prison run by a colonel, James Gandolfini. This warden is the general's opposite: a martinet who demands total control of his inmates and achieves it by any means necessary, including murder.

Before long, Redford is reminding his fellow prisoners in this maximum-security stockade that they aren't merely violent criminals or drug traffickers, but also former military men. He restores their pride, breaks down barriers between whites and minorities, wins the allegiance of all and plots with them to depose Gandolfini by seizing control of his "castle."

The movie is meant to be what producer Robert Lawrence, apparently with a straight face, has called a story of "redemption and the triumph of the human spirit." And director Rod Lurie is a West Point graduate. But whatever inside knowledge Lurie possesses doesn't translate into anything funny or interesting. Lurie and his screenwriters, David Scarpa and Graham Yost, use the spectacle of a crack unit pulling off a rebellious plot not to raise our human spirits, but to rouse our animal ones. Even at that they're unsuccessful.

Viewers who may not recognize the movie's vulgarization of its antecedents still will cringe at the heavyhandedness of Gandolfini's attempt to break Redford, and the one-sidedness of the chess match that results. Presumably the director and writers made the warden a classical music lover to soften his harsh contours. But Nazi torturers in World War II movies also were classical music lovers, and the colonel's favorite composer is Salieri - the mediocrity who in Amadeus was responsible for Mozart's death.

By the time Gandolfini asks the general to autograph a copy of his book, The Burden of Command - and overhears Redford saying that only an officer who never knew the agony of the battlefield would collect bullets from the Battle of Shiloh - we're set for Gandolfini to lower the boom quicker than you can say "Captain Queeg."

Give this to Redford: Maybe only a man who's been a top movie star for more than three decades could respond as if it were his due to the adulation showed this general. And Redford keeps his dignity even while replaying the kind of move-a-pile-of-rocks routine that his pal Paul Newman did first in Cool Hand Luke.

Gandolfini has proved he's a terrific actor - in The Sopranos, and in films like A Civil Action - but he brings nothing extra to this buttoned-up part and ends up blanking himself out. The supporting players are stuck in impossibly sentimental roles. The entire prison population in this film is made up of men who are just waiting for someone to believe in them so they can turn into heroes.

The real hero here is Delroy Lindo. This underutilized and underrated actor (he, not Michael Caine, should have won the Oscar for The Cider House Rules ) has a mere four scenes as an Army general friend of Redford's, but his crispness and subtlety put his co-stars to shame.

He controls his massive, expressive face like a master painter working from the inside out. His performance raised my spirit. My human one.

The Last Castle

Starring Robert Redford and James Gandolfini

Directed by Rod Lurie

Rated: R (adult language, violence)

Released by DreamWorks

Running time: 129 minutes

Sun score: * 1/2

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