Written by David Scarpa and Graham Yost Directed by Rod Lurie
Robert Redford has been an actor I’ve always liked quite a bit, and not just for his good looks and politics. There doesn’t seem to be a role he hasn’t done well in. The Last Castle might not have been the best choice he’s ever made as far as roles go, but I still can’t fault his performance.
Redford portrays General Irwin, a former POW in Vietnam who was a decorated veteran of the more recent actions in Bosnia and Kuwait. Irwin is court-martialed for disobeying orders and is sent to serve his time at a facility that’s become known as “The Castle”. It’s a maximum-security prison run by a tough warden, Colonel Winter (portrayed by James Gandolfini). Winter has never actually been in combat himself, but fancies himself a soldier and thinks what he’s doing at The Castle is the proper way to handle these men.
Some of the soldiers incarcerated here served under Irwin and turn to him with their complaints. Irwin dismisses them at first, believing they deserve the conditions they live under, especially considering how he lived as a POW. His own observations soon lead him to change his opinion.
Even Winter at first has a great reverence for Irwin and states they should be naming a base for him, not sending him to prison. However, Irwin’s arrival stirs things up as his natural ability to lead draws people to him, on both sides of the law in this facility. His following begins to threaten the warden.
It’s hard to put my finger on what is wrong with The Last Castle, except it’s a bit of everything. There are plenty of cliches here and few surprises, beginning with the characters. I didn’t feel like there was anything that happened both in the revelation of the characters and what was motivating them to their actions overall. The character of Yates (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) was a prime example of this. Son of someone who served with Irwin? Not surprising. Even the actions he takes at what is supposed to be the climax of the film are fairly predictable and expected, despite the fact that Director Ron Lurie and Writer David Scarpa try to lead us to think otherwise.
Colonel Winter is such a typical character; nothing that happens in regard to him is truly unexpected. The impression is that he’s been running the prison effectively enough to keep him in the position of warden, although there have been a few questions about accidental deaths under his leadership. It would seem Colonel Winter is treating it as though maintaining order and a generally good report at The Castle is his one shot for anything resembling a successful military career and he resents anyone who will come in and mess with his style.
The most interesting conflict comes between Winter and his top aide, Captain Perez (portrayed by Steve Burton). Perez seems to start getting a clue that there’s something wrong with what’s going on at The Castle but is usually at a loss for what to do with it. In fact, right from the beginning, Perez seems more comfortable with a leader like Irwin than Winter.
None of this takes anyone by surprise, though, and that’s the shame of The Last Castle. For all the talent amassed here, they couldn’t overcome the cliches and predictability. I have to wonder what the original script looked like – if there was something different here that led them to believe the film would turn out to be something other than what it is.
Redford is fine as the somewhat easy-going General who seems to be able to assess a situation, analyze it, and find a solution. It would be easy to see him surviving and leading his men in a POW camp, but at the same time missing the effect the experience had on them afterward. Gandolfini really seems to be pigeon-holed in the character and there’s not much he can do to stretch the Colonel into being more than a one-dimensional villain.
The true bright spots are from some of the younger actors. I had to do a double-take seeing Ruffalo here and even then check the cast list. At the time, Steve Burton was probably more well-known than he (Lurie even makes note of this surprise in the commentary) and although there’s nothing special or different about the character of Yates, he does a good job with him for so early in his career and at least makes him a bit interesting. Burton is a very under-appreciated actor who I wish could break out into more roles like this and away from soap operas (although he does a fine job there). Again, his actions are fairly predictable but he handles the role very well.
The look of the film is good. The buildings and the facility itself really do give the impression of a castle, with the tall spires and stone face. However, castles were where people lived to protect themselves from threats from the outside. This castle houses those society believes they need protection from. It’s something that could have been built on but never was.
The DVD has a few extras including a featurette and commentary from Lurie that was interesting enough, but the problems still come back to the film itself and just how predictable and cliched it was. I just came away feeling like there was so much missed potential here between the very talented cast and a terrific setting. Overall, a disappointing film.
• Commentary with Director Rod Lurie • HBO First Look “Inside the Walls of The Last Castle“ • Deleted Scenes • Theatrical Trailer • Cast Biographies • Filmmaker Biographies • Production Notes