Robert Redford strides across the screen in The Last Castle in that way that reminds us that he’s not just a movie star—he’s an icon. As Eugene Irwin, a court-martialed U.S. Army general turned military prison inmate, Redford occupies the moral high ground as though it were his birthright to peer down beneficently on us from above. Although he was 64 when the film was shot, golden boy heroism radiates from his pores.
Through no fault of his own, Redford’s cinematic presence has always been about the whole physical presence of the man—the hair, the twinkle in the eye, the smile. No matter how canny a performer he has become over a 35-year film career, his persona limits his on-screen flexibility. As a man of uncertain motivations, he’s awfully hard to buy.
Forty years ago, an iconic casting would have been the perfect choice for The Last Castle. It would have been a simple tale of right vs. wrong, with John Wayne or Steve McQueen cast as the protagonist fighting for justice and dignity against a corrupt penal system. But the makers of The Last Castle want their film to be a redemption tale, centered around a character played by Robert Redford—and who among us can really believe Robert Redford needs to be redeemed?
What we learn of Gen. Irwin is that he’s a military legend—Vietnam POW, Gulf War commander and the guy who literally wrote the book on combat leadership. Sentenced to 10 years—for reasons slow to be revealed—at a military prison called “The Castle,” Irwin meets Col. Winter (James Gandolfini), the prison warden who idolizes Irwin to the point of wanting him to autograph that literal book on combat leadership he wrote. Unfortunately, the admiration is not mutual—Irwin and his fellow inmates despise Winter’s methods, which include lethal violence when the mood strikes him. Though the incarcerated ex-soldiers are supposed to live in a rankless society, Irwin gradually begins to win them over to the idea that they deserve better than Winter. They’re not animals, dammit—they’re soldiers.
The psychological gamesmanship between Irwin and Winter forms the core of The Last Castle, and when it heats up, the whole film ignites. Gandolfini, known to most from The Sopranos and other goombah tough-guy roles, offers a wicked change of pace with his work as Winter. A career soldier who’s never seen a moment of actual combat, he’s a mass of insecurities when faced with a real war hero. Gandolfini plays Winter as a passive-aggressive desk jockey with a streak of sadism that comes through when the fragile illusion of his authority is shaken. Imagine the most ineffectual boss you’ve ever had with the ability to fire rubber bullets at you when you crossed him.
On the other side of the chessboard is Irwin, and it’s here that the game begins to break down. Early scenes set up the idea that Irwin has a bit of arrogant swagger to him. He has been an absentee father to his grown daughter (an uncredited Robin Wright Penn), sneers at Winter’s collection of military memorabilia as trivializing warfare, and appears fond of trusting his own judgment over reliable military intelligence data. That’s the attitude that landed him at “The Castle” in the first place, and that’s the attitude he’ll need to overcome on his dramatic character arc journey.
But Redford can’t seem to play the part without being the hero from the outset. His actions—propping up the self-esteem of a stuttering ex-Marine (Clifton Collins Jr.), insisting that the men behave as soldiers, refusing to accept a more lenient punishment when it’s offered to him—invariably come off as selfless. He’s rallying the troops not because he’s a power-monger who always thinks he knows what’s best, but because he cares.
That’s the sort of message you’d expect for an era that may be eager for simpler portrayals of military honor and decency, and it’s occasionally quite clear that director Rod Lurie (The Contender) wants nothing more than that kind of simplicity. There’s certainly plenty of simplicity on display during the climactic rebellion, in which the prisoners roll out a makeshift armory that would make MacGyver green with envy. Never mind that it’s more fun for an audience to see how the men jerry-rigged a working catapult instead of having it materialize out of thin air. Lurie only has time for the guts of the assault, pure action film mayhem that conveniently ignores why Winter’s guards continue beating the cafeteria tray/shields of the prisoners with their truncheons when exposed kneecaps are hovering mere inches below.
If The Last Castle still manages to be sporadically satisfying, it’s because you can see the kind of film it would have been in 1960 bumping hard up against its contemporary counterpart. The types are neatly drawn—the simpleton, the cynic, the brute—with You Can Count on Me’s talented Mark Ruffalo slumming in Brando-does-Ensign Pulver style as the prison’s bookie. The confrontations are staged to whip the audience into a lather of whooping and clapping, and some manage to do exactly that.
But then you see Gandolfini do his thing, and peek around the edges of the Redford mystique to see the edgier character lurking beneath. It’s not 1960—contemporary dramas just can’t tease with ambiguity, only to deliver Midnight in the Prison of Good and Evil. As appealing as black-and-white moral struggle may be post-Sept. 11, The Last Castle sets up camp as a shades-of-gray kinda tale about a shades-of-gray kinda guy. The only shades of gray about Robert Redford are those creeping into the golden hair of the Sundance Kid.
The Last Castle (R) HH Directed by Rod Lurie. Starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo.