on April 1, 2004
I used to listen to Rod Lurie on KABC talk radio each Saturday. He had a show on movies and he was very entertaining. His views were strong and very unlike the political correctness that started to sweep this country. I remember when he got his first screenplay together and had to leave the show to direct his first movie. He is the rare movie critic that actually switched careers to make movie. For that, he deserves respect by all.
Now...this film was weak. I agree, the core antagonist/ protagonist relationship was weak...in fact, very weak. The warden was insulted because he has never really done a tour of duty, so collecting war memorabilia is for the weak. This is his soul motivation to prove himself. Yes, man is that fragile, but it needed to be developed thoroughly to base an entire movie on.
The rest of the flic makes one wonder if these guys are really in a prison. There is almost no conflict among the prisoners...they seem so united and too respectful of Redford's character. The movie lacked energy and intensity. The scene with the rocks that Redford dragged went on and on with no climax that moved me.
In short, this was a good looking Hollywood movie that was boring...you keep wondering why this movie was made. Maybe on repeat viewings it will be insightful...however not by me. I'm glad I borrowed it from the library!
Keep trying Rod!
on December 26, 2003
I'm glad I saw this film on HBO instead of paying money to rent it. While it was moderately entertaining, I wouldn't be interested in adding it to my home movie collection.
The film starts out with two incidents that it fails to follow up on. The first is a fight in the military prison between two inmates. The music and fight leads you to believe that this will be like a lot of prison films: people leading very hard lives, getting beat up on a daily basis, and having to fight to survive. There was virtually none of this. None of the prisoners are the least bit scary, and you expect them to hug each other by the final scene. Robert Redford is immediately given respect for being a general, and doesn't have to earn anything for himself.
The second surprise is that Redford's situation is left a mystery until halfway through the film. It's alluded to several times early on that he is a 3 star general and he doesn't deserve to be in prison. When it is finally revealed why he is in prison, it is a letdown. You're expecting it to be a fairly prominent part of the film, and he's portrayed as someone who doesn't deserve to be there. The director brushes over the explanation and the viewer learns that Redford, like every other prisoner, DESERVES to be in jail. This makes it very difficult to root for him when he decides to lead a gang of murderers and prisoners in an uprising against the warden.
The other main problem with this film, is that Gandolfini doesn't come off as a very bad character. Unlike the classic prison movies, you have a prisoner who deserves to be in jail, fighting against a warden who is supposed to be evil, but is never developed fully enough to show this.
The whole time through the end of this movie, I kept thinking, these guys are killing innocent American soldiers who were stationed at the prison and are simply following orders. While not many are killed, there are definitely a couple who go down permanently. I'm supposed to be excited about this?
Overall, a lackluster hero, a weak villain, and a lack of a single escape attempt makes this a very weak prison movie. This movie is tailor-made for Dolph Lundgren or Jean Claude Van Damme, not Robert Redford.
on June 15, 2003
I will start with the bottom line: in spite of what I will write further on, this movie is exciting to watch, has clear "good and "bad" sides and a satisfying ending coming after several thrilling fight scenes.
Before the bottom line I will write this: the story is one you know and have seen before. This means you can guess quite well what will be the next step and who will be "sacrificed for the cause". The movie is a combination of the "sport" genre where a group of (football/basketball... etc.) losers is trained by the has-been coach which succeeds in overcoming his own problems and making the bunch of losers into a real winning team (lesson # 1 - working together is important) and the prison movie genre - which always starts with its message of "mind your own business" - and hence the conflict of these two messages until the clear victory of one message - yes, you guessed right.
But I do not mean to be cynical. The movie is captivating and you are very much interested to know what will happen to General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), a decorated war hero sent to a 10 year sentence in a military jail and if he is going to survive the first weeks in prison and not hang himself as the other inmates anticipate and gamble on. We are very much interested to find out what will happen to the dynamics between Irwin and the prisoners he joins. Also, what did Irwin do to get himself in prison? The answer is only a little revealed through the movie - yet not in full. The fact that Irwin is in prison does not harm viewers and inmates perception of Irwin as a leader and a war hero and the guess is that the reason for his being in prison has something to do with a moral dilemma after which he has decided to "mind his own business" from now on. Robert Redford is Robert Redford. No surprises here. He plays a very rational, somewhat bitter and quite truthful person who knows how to hold himself well in all situations. Irwin is indeed a leader and Redford is able to project his quiet strong power which has the prisoners following him. However, not a surprising figure for Redford and not a lot different then his previous roles.
Playing opposite Redford is Gandolfini as Colonel Winter, the prisoner warden - one that is no real match for General Irwin. Winter gains power by fear and punishment while Irwin gains power by respect . Gandolfini does play a different character then the one we usually see him in. Whereas in the Sopranos his heavy physique and gestures are taken as intimidating and menacing and yet he manages to remain loveable and even humorous, there is nothing humorous about Warden Winter. Throughout the movie we see him deteriorating until his last cover is exposed for what he really is. This character too was quite simplistic and predictable.
on May 9, 2003
"The Last Castle" is a novel about the inherent value of human life. Even the worst of prisoners and other undesirables are still human beings and if we look deep enough, we can find nobility and value in them too. I enjoyed this film and its' message.
The story's plot revolves around a remarkable man, Lieutenant General Eugene Erwin played by Robert Redford, and his sentencing to a ten-year prison sentence at a military prison for a crime unmentioned until later in the film. As Erwin is brought to prison, we meet the leading antagonist, Colonel Winter, played by James Gandolfini, a quiet soft-spoken man and the prison warden whose personality seems to be much deeper than his civilized exterior. After Erwin and Winters meet some ten minutes or so into the movie, we can see that the rest of the film will be about a test of wills between the two.
The film's climax culminates in the prisoners staging an overthrow of Colonel Winter and his guards by the prisoners led by Erwin. The director really thought up some innovative ideas for how prisoners might deal with helicopters, riot cars with hydraulic hoses, and guard towers. Many of the other reviewers wrote that they thought the prisoners' solutions to the helicopters, riot cars with hydraulic hoses, and guard towers were a bit far fetched. I don't agree and found everything plausible if not very likely. The prisoners use food trays as shields like Roman Legionnaires in Tetsudo formation (a solid line of shields) to protect themselves from the water cannon on the riot car and some of the prisoners crawl under the building and cut off the water main feeding the water cannon. They then use the water cannon to shoot a grappling hook attached to a chain, which entangles the helicopter's landing skids. Even better, then a prisoner, who is also a helicopter pilot, shimmies up the chain and overpowers the helicopter pilot. See what I mean about plausible but farfetched?
Meanwhile the prisoners have built a trebuchet (a gravity catapult) and are using rubber medical hose to lob bags of flammables at the guard towers. I got a particular chuckle out of this one since I remember engineering students at university hooking gigantic piece of rubber medical hose between two antennas on our dorm's roof to hurl water balloons at an opposing dorm. I can definitely vouch that rubber medical hose works fine for lobbing things great distances.
However, the crown jewel of the film is Redford's portrayal of General Erwin. Redford gives Erwin a force of character and a determination that makes it hard not to like him. He's very believable as a general. The film also relates that Erwin is a former POW and Vietnam veteran. Redford's lines about the experience correspond with every novel I've read about the POW experience in Vietnam. Once again, Redfrod's performance rang true. A minor subtheme for the film is chess and all of Erwin's moves are related to a chess game including the eventual overthrow of the prison. One reviewer wrote that Erwin was just as much a manipulator as Gandolfini's Colonel Winters and to this point I disagree. Erwin portrays a general who leads men by example and respect. This is called leadership and has nothing to do with manipulation. A general leads men to accomplish a task that he or she may or may not agree with. A manipulator USES men to accomplish tasks for the manipulator's own ends. There is a strong difference between the two.
I highly recommend this excellent drama.
Review by: Maximillian Ben Hanan
on December 2, 2002
Director Rod Lurie's follow-up of "The Contender" raises his patriotic tone higher than before, and gives an intriguging setting of the film, but as he did before, sacrifices its potentially complex nature of patriotism. Instead of making full use of the interesting situation, "The Last Castle" goes in a very familar territory where many previous prison dramas have treaded before. But ... here's an irony ... the film is very engaging and entertaining as the latter.
Robert Redford is General Irwin (and three-star general), who disobeyed a direct order from the President and was found guilty at court marshal. Irwin, now stripped of his honor, is sent to the prison where Col. Winter (James Gandolfini) maneges with strict rules. At first, Irwin was thinking of nothing but "doing time, and going home," dreaming of the day (ten years ahead) when he can play chess with his still unseen grandson. But the situation around him, which is so severe for some inmates of the prison, wakes up something in Irwin: his anger against injustice. With his leadership, the convicted men, once deprived of pride, now believe that he is the man to rely on, and start to follow him.
In 1980, Robert Redford was in a similar (but with a totally diffrent tone) film called "Brubaker." If you remember that, or have the fresh memory of "Shawshank" and many other dramas set in prison, it is not hard for you to guess the development of the story. I must say here that for all its predictable plot, "The Last Castle" never fails to grab your attention. After all, Redford is always good at playing this type of hero, and Gandolfini supplies us exactly the kind of man who should be despised and ridiculed. Delroy Lindo's cameo gives a fresh air at the right moment, and you also got an uncredited appearance of one famous actress R.W. (or R.W.P.) as Irwin's daughter.
However, some might find problems right with those things -- Redford did too many roles like this in the past back from the 1970s, and he can do it while sleeping. Gandolfini pumps up his acting, and probably that is suitable for this kind of person, but if you have seen "The Mexican" (and yes, "The Sopranos") you know he can do it better than that, and could have shown more complicated side of the character. Inexplicably, Col. Winter seems to have his say at some moment (when he talks about his predecessor), but he is not allowed to do that. That is manipulating, some might say, considering the difficult nature of his job at prison. I agree with them.
There are even swell action scenes; there is a character who you judge soon is going to get killed, and you judge it right. There are many elements we find in prison dramas, and if you complain them, you will dislike the film. Your complaint is justified; only, you just have to forget it, to enjoy the drama which is in itself very gripping. But talking about the "waving flag," I just don't think that the US military system needs drastic events of this magnitude.
See this one as a good textbook about the quality of leadership, and as an absorbing tale of men and their pride. As such "The Last Castle" should be seen.
on October 14, 2002
On its surface, The Last Castle is an enjoyable action flick carrying some meaningful messages. But upon closer scrutiny, there's not much below that surface.
The story is definitely an entertaining one. Robert Redford plays a court martialed three-star general entering prison, where he comes into conflict with a manipulative warden played by James Gandolfini who enjoys making life as difficult as possible for his inmates.
It's easy for many to mistakenly label this flick as a masterpiece. It has all the right pieces, internal and external conflicts, symbolism, a great cast and wonderful cinematography. But it just doesn't use them as masterful as it could.
Two things really bugged me. One was the manipulative film score. Now I'm all for grand majestic film scores such as Star Wars, or Braveheart - when appropriate - but when they stop impressing a certain mood and cross the line to blatantly declare "hey, you have to feel really moved here! The music demands it!" it gets to be a distraction. This film doesn't call for a majestic score, it's a prison drama and deserves something more subtle. Let the acting speak for itself, both Robert Redford and James Gandolfini are great. They don't need manipulative music to express their emotions.
The second thing was the film went too far to explain its symbolism. The idea of the prison being a castle is great, and the film makes a number of analogies between prisoners and medieval soldiers, (which really work well since this is a military prison). But instead of letting the audience figure all the symbolism out themselves, everything is fully explained. No repeat viewings are necessary to catch all the ideas and metaphors used, it's like watching the movie with the director next to you explaining "yeah, here this scene represents... blah blah blah." Figuring it all out is half the fun of a good movie, and part of what makes repeat viewings entertaining.
The Last Castle also seems to take a lot of visual ideas from one of the the greatest prison dramas: The Shawshank Redemption. I'm not sure, but I think they may have even used the same old-style prison. So many of the shots, along with many story elements, are identical to shots in The Shawshank Redemption.
But despite these flaws, The Last Castle is still a very entertaining film. The acting is great, the drama is all there and the action sequence at the end is spectacular. It's just too bad this one didn't rise above the popcorn flick level, because it sure had the potential.
on October 13, 2002
Robert Redford is Eugene Irwin, a disgraced and court-martialed army general sentenced to long-term incarceration in "The Castle", a maximum security army prison presided over by Lt. Col. Winter (James Gandolfini). A man of high ideals, Erwin has no illusions about his guilt or the prisoners with whom he will be sharing the next few years with. Other prisoners, convinced that Irwin must have some friends left in Washington, rally around him, hoping he can do something about the brutal conditions imposed by the sadistic Winter. At first content merely to do his time with the minimum amount of indignity, Erwin finds he must become a general again, create an army out of disgraced soldiers who populate the Castle and usurp Winter's position as its king. Reverting to his role as a tactician, Erwin treats the Castle like a medeival fortress - defined by its walls, its garrison, guard towers and its king. Though less of an ideal army, Erwin's forces have the advantage of already being within the walls of their castle.
This was actually a pretty good movie, when you get past the miscasting and the way it manipulates you, and how far behind the times it is. We're supposed to believe that the Castle really does house the worst of the worst, but Redford's character expends very little effort to rally and unite them in a futile cause. (He wins their "Hearts and Minds" which, depending on what direction your coming from, is either a jab at the failure of Vietnam, or the liberal idealism that thought such things possible). Redford's character is the biggest cheat - an utterly selfless character whose disgrace, we learn, was actually based on heroism (Erwin led a force in a tragically bungled maneuver in Burundi, which, ala Mogadishu, went horribly wrong; disobeying a direct order to evac, and disregarding reliable intel that the idea would be likely fatal, Erwin remains with the idea of seizing a dread warlord. The reliable intel, however, proves correct, and Erwin's men are slaughtered). We also learn that Erwin was a former POW, credited by fellow prisoners with saving their lives and dignity. Winter, on the other hand, is a bully and a coward, looking safe because he knows the awesome firepower he's got. Gandolfini tries to underplay the guy, trying not to be Tony Soprano, but sounding more like Joe Mantegna's "Fat Tony" character on the Simpsons. We know that Winter will crumble. Most of the characters are anonymous, especially a disgraced helicopter pilot named Yates who will prove pivotal in both Erwin and Winter's plans. Will Winter be able to capitalize on Yates's shame (Yates trafficked in drugs and, when caught, wore a wire to sell out his co-conspirators)? Or will Erwin teach Yates that he has a chance to be all he was and can still be (son of a Medal of Honor recipient; West Point grad; elite gunship pilot; hero)? When Erwin's plan is revealed, we're supposed to marvel at its ingenuity, but the tools and the knowledge behind them were never even hinted at during the story (jury-rigged catapults, firebombs, home-made bazookas and a nifty grappling hook gun; one of Erwin's soldiers manages to locate the pump for the water-main that Winter's guards plug into for riot control). And you've got to wonder how Winter, repressive as he was and having as many resources as he had, would have missed such obvious details. A good movie, if you don't take it as seriously as the people who made it.
on October 12, 2002
In the absence of a wonderful performance by James Gandolfini, this would be just one more of the formulaic, cookie-cutter Hollywood prison movies. The plot is more than familiar, if not outright predictable: "the guards are sadists and criminals; the prisoners are victims and the heroes; society can only be saved by the role reversal that their insurrection involves, you know the rest." The earliest version of this I can recall is Birdman of Alcatraz, but the genre probably goes back to Victor Hugo, if not further. Unfortunately, Redford isn't Burt Lancaster, and his character isn't Jean Valjean. Nonetheless, it's the average Redford performance: lots of closeups and little acting - not awful, but nothing worth comment. James Gandolfini, however, although a comparative newcomer to major productions shows just what fine acting can be and displays more dramatic range in his role than Redford has in his entire career. Sopranos afficianados won't recognize him if they hear the soundtrack only. To illustrate, at the end the viewer has little regret over loss of Redford's flatulent character while the downfall of Gandolfini's has a Shakespearean tragic quality in view of his essential value dragged down by an insuperable flaw of pride.
The long and the short of this is that this movie would be a profoundly forgettable piece of agitprop absent Gandolfini's splendid performance. With that performance, Last Castle struggles but finally achieves a measure of acceptability -- but only just. If the film serves to advance Gandolfini's career beyond the criminal and blue collar roles he's done to date, it will more than redeem any of its shortcomings.
on October 12, 2002
In the absence of a wonderful performance by James Gandolfini, this would be just one more of the formulaic, cookie-cutter Hollywood prison movies. The plot is more than familiar, if not outright predictable: "the guards are sadists and criminals; the prisoners are victims and the heroes; society can only be saved by the role reversal that their insurrection involves, you know the rest." The earliest version of this I can recall is Birdman of Alcatraz, but the genre probably goes back to Victor Hugo, if not further. Unfortunately, Redford isn't Burt Lancaster, and his character isn't Jean Valjean. Nonetheless, it's the average Redford performance: lots of closeups and little acting - not awful, but nothing worth comment. James Gandolfini, however, although a comparative newcomer to major Hollywood productions, shows just what fine acting can be and displays more dramatic range in his role than Redford has in his entire career. Sopranos afficianados won't recognize him if they hear the soundtrack only. The long and the short of this is that this movie would be a profoundly forgettable piece of agitprop absent Gandolfini's splendid performance. With that performance, Last Castle struggles but finally achieves a measure of acceptability -- but only just.
on July 24, 2002
A masterfull battle of strong wills. General Irwin (Redford) lead his men through building them up before he was sent to jail and he tries to lead the same way once incarcerated. Every man in the place, including the guards and warden (James Gandolfini) look at Irwin with respect, he has earned it through his legendary performances in combat. The warden is a colonel who has never seen combat. This is where the difference begin, not end.
These two strong willed military men battle for the control of the prison, the mens hearts and minds. One trying to lead/control by fear, the other trying to lead by example.
Throughout the movie you are constantly wondering what Irwin will pull out of his hat next, where he is going with his line of thought. The final "battle" scenes for control of the prison are very entertaining. Lots of action and the mind games play on throughout. It is like a chess game, move, counter-move.
An outstanding movie that should be added to anyone's collection.