"The Last Castle" is about an inmate revolt in a U.S. military
prison... and that's about it. The plot, as it was intended, provides
a reasonable backdrop for what could have evolved into a thoughtful
portrayal of human character. Unfortunately, the movie is a hollow
shell, where life isn't breathed into the characters, and the story
suffers from apathy.
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Directed by West Point grad Rod Lurie, who directed last year's "The
Contender", "The Last Castle" certainly has the look and production
quality that exudes "military life". Lurie certainly knows what it looks
and feels like to be in the military, and that such a life can
strengthen character and offer redemption. The problem is, he doesn't
succeed at communicating that to the audience. Rather, we're expected
to just "accept" certain conditions or emotions, rather than giving us
a reason to believe through screenplay.
Robert Redford plays General Irwin, a highly decorated three-star general
with a great deal of battle experience from Viet Nam to the Gulf War. He's
been court-marshaled and convicted to ten years in prison, for what, we
don't yet know. Erwin's adversary is Col. Winter, the Prison's corrupt
and abusive warden, played by James Gandolfini (from HBO's "The Sopranos").
The conflict between the two happens in the first scene where Col. Winter,
a long-time admirer of General Irwin, asks the general to sign his copy
of Irwin's book on military strategy. While Winter goes off-camera to
retrieve the book, Irwin engages in a conversation with an orderly over
Colonel Winter's collection of old war artifacts. When Irwin states that
anyone that collects such things has never seen real battle, Col. Winter
overhears him, and turns his target sites towards the General. War hero
The rest of the movie is the development of this conflict. When General
Irwin sees the unjust management of the prison by Col. Winter, solidarity
develops between him and his fellow prisoners. He quickly befriends
most of them, bringing order and cohesiveness to the group. Unlike most
new arrivals to prison, Irwin doesn't have to earn the respect of the
others; he already had it through his war reputation. This seems to
ignore the fact that he's been convicted of a pretty serious crime, the
nature of which only becomes more mysterious. As the prisoners regain
their dignity through Irwin's supposed charisma, the warden continually
tries to defile and defame the general. Tensions build, and eventually,
Irwin announces that Winter should resign, or he will overtake the prison.
There's the plot. Now, how that develops is what makes the movie so
weak. No event or character has enough depth or credibility. In fact,
the characters are so shallow, the two main characters, Irwin and Winter,
don't even have first names. They aren't used in the script, and the
credits and production notes list them only by their last names.
The most important example of this is in General Irwin himself. All the
prisoners "accept" the general as a famous war hero, yet, we don't see or
experience anything to justify this acceptance. The best we are offered
is a short scene where we see scars from Irwin's having been tortured in
a Vietnamese prison camp, which suggests courage and sacrifice for his
country and fellow prisoners. Fine, but the prisoners had already trusted
him at this point, so the scene didn't convince us of anything.
We understand the prisoners respect him, but we have to as well.
This is best done through interaction, flashbacks, or dialog that tells
more of a story about who Irwin is, what motivates him, and the big picture
of what he's all about.
Plus, there's that lingering question of what Irwin did that got him
court-marshaled in the first place. The longer it takes to find out
what his crime is, the more dramatic we expect it to be, and the more
depth it should give his purpose in the movie. We expect one of three
things: the crime is so heinous that the prisoners would reject him,
causing the struggle to be about redemption for himself as well as to
the prisoners. Or, he could have been unjustly convicted, in which case,
his fight has a moral cause that's beyond just a corrupt warden. He'd
have to fight against a bigger adversary, like the top military brass
itself. Lastly, and most interestingly, there could have been a moral
ambiguity where there was no discrete right and wrong in Irwin's "crime",
similar to the conflict between Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in
the 1995 film, "The Crimson Tide".
Any one of these scenarios would have established precedent for whatever
came next, and Irwin's fight to gain the prisoners' trust would have
added the human drama and purpose that's so sorely missing from the
movie as it is.
It turns out that Irwin's "crime" is an unfulfilling abstraction:
"disobeying direct orders," resulting in the execution of eight men. Sure,
a bad thing, but what does it say about his character? How does this
affect how people feel about him? Trust and honor are both critical in
the military, yet these two aspects are too conspicuously overlooked.
Redford's character also doesn't come to terms with another personal
struggle: his daughter. She visits him at the beginning of the movie
and they clearly have a lot of patching up to do, but this relationship
never develops. She should have either been cut, or their relationship
developed, perhaps tying it in to the deeper personal issue that may be
somehow related to the motivation behind his crime, whatever that may be..
The same problems in character development apply to Col. Winter. Why
is he sadistic? He was clearly bitter and resentful long before Irwin
came, so what got him that way? His fallout with Irwin wasn't that
dramatic to make their conflict interesting. Also, as much as I like
James Gandolfini as an actor, he simply failed to have any sort of
presence as a bad guy in this context. For a military-movie comparison,
consider Jack Nicholson's performance in "A Few Good Men." Not only did
he believe in what he was doing, he had such enormous presence on screen,
that you felt the intimidation when anyone had to have any contact with
him, let alone conflict.
Without a meaningful and plausible feeling for each of these characters,
the only thing we're left with is the battle between them. But, what
kind of battle is that? The adversaries aren't equal, nor do we have a
"David and Goliath" analogy, where, against all odds, the smaller and
morally just soldier triumphs over the evil giant. In "The Last Castle",
there's an experienced war veteran against an inexperienced prison warden;
we know who's going to win before the conflict even begins.
Even the climactic battle has no surprises. There are no major struggles
of any kind, and worse, it's fraught with implausible action sequences.
In one scene, a helicopter crashes to the ground, burns in flames, rolls
over several times, and the only thing left is a wire-frame skeleton
of a structure. Yet, the pilot comes out with no other injuries than
a bloody nose. The movie is full of such scenes, and worse, many are
simply out of sequence, and the time-flow is so inconsistent, you find
yourself thinking, "shouldn't that have happened a while ago?"
Lastly, the metaphors in the movie fall so flat, it doesn't even make
sense to think about them. The prisoners are given a task to build a
wall, which was presumably the wall of the original prison that was
once destroyed. Rebuilding that wall is supposed to be about rebuilding
character and personal honor and respect, but its prominence in the
movie is so understated that it doesn't succeed at doing anything but
giving the "extras" something to do while on screen.
As for the script, given all the problems already mentioned, one doesn't
expect much from it. It's simple, shallow, and somewhat predictable,
with the prime goal of manipulating audience emotions.
The best thing I can say about the movie is its high production value. The
cinematography is good, with effective lighting and sets to effectively
convey mood. But, in the end, it'd be better to see it when it gets
to network television while you passively watch it while browsing the
internet for other, more interesting things.
THE LAST CASTLE
Directed by Rod Lurie; written by David Scarpa and Graham Yost, based on a
story by Mr. Scarpa; director of photography, Shelly Johnson; edited by
Michael Jablow and Kevin Stitt; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production
designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Robert Lawrence; released by
DreamWorks Pictures. Running time: 120 minutes. This film is rated R.
Starring: Robert Redford (General Irwin), James Gandolfini (Colonel Winter),
Mark Ruffalo (Yates), Steve Burton (Captain Peretz), Delroy Lindo (General
Wheeler) and Paul Calderon (Dellwo).
Official site: www.thelastcastle.com.
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