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IN SHORT: A battle of wills with a prison yard as the gameboard. Good flick. [Rated R for language and violence. 130 minutes]
We'll let Leonard Maltin make a list of how many movies have been set in prisons and featured stories in which the inmates took over the asylum. We'll note that director Rod Lurie's The Last Castle is more a battle of egos resulting in the usual rebellion than everything you've been seeing for years. It's a very entertaining tale which works from start to finish . . . moving so quickly that we never paused to consider "how did they do that?" If the film didn't work we'd have had the time to squirm in our seats and consider the question of the manufacture and stashing of some of the inventive and impressive weapons used in the uprising. It does and we didn't. Onwards...
The setting is a military prison overseen by a soft spoken Colonel Winters (James Gandolfini of The Sopranos, who has made an art of heavy breathing and painful sounding sighing) and his right hand enforcer Captain Peretz (Steve Burton). Discipline in the Yard is brutal and, as we will learn early on, the proper use of rubber bullets can kill. Winter runs the yard by pitting the service branches against each other; this, along with the race conflicts found in every jailyard story, reduces these ex-soldiers to the levels of animals -- in his view. That will change with the surprise, last minute addition of 3 Star Lt. General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) to the Yard.
General Irwin's rep is legend -- 6 years in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp, during which he kept each and every one of the soldiers under his command alive, and a spectacular command in the Gulf War. The general admits that he should have retired after his tour in Bosnia, but he took on one last command and screwed up. Sentenced to ten years, all Prisoner Irwin wants is to do his time and then try to repair the emotional damage he's inflicted on his own family. Irwin's His relationship with his daughter Rosalie is about as estranged as you can get and he has a six year old grandson seen only in pictures.
Even stripped of rank, Prisoner Irwin's very presence brings out the soldier in all of the ex-soldiers. Even Colonel Winter acknowledges "they should be naming a camp after the man, not sending him here". The other convicted military men -- Marine Corporal Aguilar (Clifton Collins Jr) who stutters so badly he's been the brunt of abuse from every superior officer he's encountered; Yates (Mark Ruffalo) the camp bookie, son of a man who had been locked in the Hanoi Hilton with Irwin; Sergeant Major Dellwo (Paul Calderon) who will eventually whips the inmates into line voluntarily (!) -- hope the Legend can bring changes to Winter's World. Irwin wants to be left alone, but what he sees in the camp leads him to conclude otherwise. He declares Winter unfit to command, and Winter calls in the big guns . . . General Wheeler (Delroy Lindo), who has the ability to declare the ex General mentally unfit to serve his sentence. Wheeler knows that Irwin isn't loony. He also knows that Winter sits on the edge -- the commandant has been investigated, and cleared, three times before -- and warns the Colonel to make nice or else. Thus the battle lines are drawn for the hearts and minds of the men in gray and orange. Loyalty or Fear.
And one side has guns with live ammunition.
Both Gandolfini and Redford so underplay their roles that it's amazing that so much emotional competition develops between the two. For Gandolfini's Winter, it's the need to maintain his iron fist control of "The Castle". There's no doubt about it, Winter is a perfect example of the Peter Principle, a person who has risen to the highest level of (his) incompetence. For Redford's character, it's the very simple decision to roust an unfit military man. He's lived by military principles, and with military discipline, all his life. The loss of rank or freedom isn't going to change that.
May the best man win.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Last Castle, he would have paid . . .
Buy the big popcorn.
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