The Last Castle is a bit of a disappointing movie. On one hand, it’s so ridiculously conventional that every step of the movie is choreographed from the moment that the two leads (the “leader of men” prisoner played by Robert Redford and the typical “sadistic warden” played by James Gandolfini) appear on screen together. You know there’s going to be a battle of wills which unfolds and escalates, costing some lives and leading to a (literally, if not figuratively) explosive finale. However, given the on-screen talent on the project, you’d be forgiven for expecting a bit more than the movie delivers.
The premise kinda explains itself: a former war hero is imprisoned at a military facility run by a stern commanding officer who has never experienced the heat of battle. The war hero keeps to himself, but is unable to stand by as he witnesses the sadistic punishments and actions that the warden inflicts on his charges. And slowly (or not so slowly), a battle of wits brews. And by “wits”, I mean “by-the-book prison insurrection antics”.
The movie is just straightforward from there. There’s nothing new or really interesting which unfolds. The characters are two-dimensional clichés, with no hint of a nuanced portrayal or a hint of ambiguity you would expect. Despite the observation – and a valid one, I would suggest – from the warden that some of these prisoners have done horrible and unforgiveable things, they all band together in some sort of “band of brothers” fashion, even adopting a facsimile of the military command structure – which ignores the fairly basic assumption that, well, a large number of these former soldiers are probably here because they are unsuited or unable to follow that structure. Indeed, the movie suggests that there’s a single prisoner in the entire compound who even has second thoughts about following this disgraced war hero.
However, there’s a more fundamental problem with the movie than that. Although we are fairly definitively informed that Colonel Winters is a bad guy – not misguided, not sincerely motivated, just a bad guy- we see little or no evidence to support that the officers serving under his command are as corrupt and irredeemable as he is. Yet, at the movie’s climax, we see events which undoubtedly lead to the death of more than a few of these officers at the hands of his inmates. And yet, the movie suggests, we are supposed to cheer for the captive prisoners. Of course, it is a conflict and the prison officers are opening fire, but there is a justified reason. Indeed, any losses on the side of the inmates (and those who were disobeying orders, which is not an excuse or even a mitigating factor) came directly down to Colonel Winters and led us to hate him, we are apparently not supposed to bat our eyes at the deaths of prison guards just doing their jobs – who are soldiers just like the inmates were.
I realise this is a problem with virtually all action films – what did that one henchman do to deserve a death at the hands of James Bond, for example? – but it feels particularly obvious here, since both sides are serving the same flag (and took the same oath) and the conflict doesn’t seem inherently justified in the same way that, say, a war film would, for example. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being hyper sensitive, but I was actually imagining that wonderful scene from Austin Powers featuring the henchman and his family. “I’m sorry, Bobby, your daddy was killed because he had the misfortune to be employed as a guard in a prison where Robert Redford decided to shake things up.”
Anyway, the movie has other problems, but that one jumps out at me. I’m more than a bit disappointed with the two leads. Redford is a veteran actor who has an impressive filmography behind him and is hugely talented, yet here he’s unable to inject life into proceedings. I’m not sure exactly how much of this is his fault or that of the script, but there is a problem somewhere. Gandolfini, on the other hand, seems far more hampered by the script. Put simply, his character isn’t really a character – it’s a cliché with lines. It’s weird to see Gandolfini play a character so hopelessly under pressure and outmatched. In The Sopranos, Tony was always stressed and frequently incapable of actually doing anything that would help him, but here it seems that Winters is incapable of doing anything at all. Gandolfini doesn’t seem comfortable in the role, and it’s a shame – he’s a talented actor who deserves more attention than he has received, but there’s little of what makes him stand out to be found here. On the other hand, Mark Ruffalo is fairly solid in supporting role as a stereotypically clichéd conflicted and cynical convict, but there’s only so much he can do in an underwritten role.
The Last Castle isn’t all bad. It plays most of its cards well – the prison revolt movie is such an institution that it’s easy enough to follow the blueprint smoothly. It offers its hackenyed sentiments quite well, with overblown music on demand and lots of emotional manipulation of the lead. It does what it says on the tin, basically. It doesn’t do it exceptionally, but it gets it done. The action scenes at the end are well-staged and directed, and it delivers on most of what it promises.
Still, it’s hard not to look at the film and wonder if it could have been more.