The Last Castle
Since hanging up the mic as the oft-blurbed critic at a Los Angeles radio station, Rod Lurie has developed a directorial specialty: political thrillers for viewers who can't name the branches of the federal government. His latest transplants the action from the conspiracy-rich Washington D.C. of The Contender, a city filled with heroes and villains of Dickensian proportions, to the claustrophobic confines of a military prison. Though it discards most of the overt politics, Lurie's clear divide between good and evil survives the move intact. On one side stands James Gandolfini, the prison's draconian director, who's introduced listening to the music of Antonio Salieri (a none-too-subtle suggestion of a rivalry to come) and shown frequently polishing and cleaning objects around his office. On the other stands Robert Redford, a three-star general court-martialed for an act of insubordination that cost several of his men their lives. Initially content to serve out his term and go home, Redford gets drawn into prison politics as he observes the abuses around him. Just how powerful is Gandolfini? Apparently powerful enough to control the weather. In one scene, he sentences a stuttering former corporal to stand for hours in the rain. Protesting this cruel and unusual punishment, Redford quickly receives some of his own when, in the next scene, Gandolfini forces him to move rocks in the blistering sun. Eventually, the inmates begin to follow Redford as he sets up a new, quasi-military order that restores their self-respect—a remarkably easy task, considering that these are supposedly hardened criminals. Like The Green Mile, Castle frequently references its characters' dastardly pasts, then presents near-innocents incapable of cutting their own steaks. Castle's military-prison setting could just as easily be an especially tough inner-city high school, with Redford as a teacher who sets it straight. But for all that, the film still mostly works, and its cast doesn't hurt. Redford and Gandolfini both underplay nicely, giving their stock characters suggestions of depth, as does Mark Ruffalo, playing the sole character whose loyalties have a hint of ambiguity. And though Lurie is a shameless button-pusher, the buttons he chooses do work, at least until the finale, which has to be seen to be disbelieved. After borrowing liberally from Cool Hand Luke, The Bridge On The River Kwai, and The Shawshank Redemption, the script by Graham Yost (Speed) and David Scarpa brings in a good-guys-vs.-bad-guys action sequence that resembles nothing so much as the Ewoks-vs.-stormtroopers segment of Return Of The Jedi. The film collapses back to its basic elements, but given Lurie's unsophisticated materials, it's remarkable that he keeps it together as long as he does.