Robert Redford. In 350-plus reviews, I didn't do one Redford movie. It wasn't an intentional slight, and all I can come up with is that I've tried to review movies I haven't seen in the past. Looking at Redford's filmography, I've seen about half so that explains it to a certain point. So anyways, here goes, a Redford review starting with 2001's The Last Castle.
One of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s, Redford has stepped back from the limelight over the last 15 years, content to direct more than act while also organizing the annual Sundance Film Festival. At 74 years old, he is one of those few actors you could really call a 'movie star.' He has aged gracefully without any sort of controversy or media event to scar his career, and he is as cool as ever. In 'Castle,' he was making his first on-screen appearance in three years, and even though Redford is typically strong in the lead, the movie just can't sustain any sort of momentum before derailing in the final act.
A decorate army general, Lt. General Gene Irwin (Redford) has been court martialled and sentenced to serve a 10-year team in a military prison. It is a maximum security prison full of the dredges from all the armed forces with a brutal commander, Colonel Winters (James Gandolfini), in charge, doing his best to remain order while also having some fun at the prisoners' expense. Early on as he begins to serve his sentence, Irwin is content to sit back and let the days go by. But soon enough, he sees Winters for what he really is; a sadistic commander watching over his prison like a puppetmaster, making the prisoners do things for his entertainment. Irwin refuses to go along with what he sees and puts a complicated plan into action for ousting Winters.
Prison or P.O.W. movies have a popularity all to themselves, and because of that there's a tried and true formula to follow. 'Castle' does deviate from the formula in one big way; the prisoners aren't trying to escape. As military criminals, they realize to a point where are they really going to go? So with any escape plans out the window, the story settles into a battle of wills between two type-A personalities, Redford's Irwin and Gandolfini's Winters. While obviously not as good a movie overall, the dynamic here reminded me of The Bridge on the River Kwai with the struggle for power a key ingredient to the story.
At the age of 65 making this movie, Redford looks like he's about 45, maybe 50 if you push it. Since he started directing movies in the early 90s, he's acted less so it's always good to see him in front of the camera. As Lt. General Irwin, he's clearly the more sympathetic character. We find out midway through the movie why he was court martialed and therefore why early on he just wanted to do his time and avoid any of the politics of a general being in a military prison. Seeing Winters play his mind games with prisoners and generally manipulate the facility for his enjoyment finally pushes Irwin too far, including one incident with a marine (Clifton Collins Jr. in a great supporting part) where unnecessary violence is taken to a new level by the commandant.
Right in the middle of his huge success as part of The Sopranos, Gandolfini does his fair share of scenery-chewing as the prison commander. He butts heads instantly with Irwin when he overhears a comment about his military antique collection and it goes downhill from there. What works so well with this dynamic is the egos involved. Both men want to prove they're better than the other, even when the situation is escalated to a whole new level. I'm not a huge Gandolfini fan, but he is a really fun actor to watch. Also in the cast is Delroy Lindo as General Wheeler, an old friend of Irwin's suspicious of what's really happening in the prison, Mark Ruffalo as Yates, a prisoner no one likes who may or may not be playing both sides, and Steve Burton as Capt. Peretz, Winters' aide.
Through the first hour of 'Castle,' I was liking where the story was building to if not loving it. After that, the whole movie rolls over a land mine, derails, hits a wall, whatever you want to call it. Pushed too far, Irwin -- a master of command and strategy -- leads a coup from inside the prison against the heavily outnumbered guards. On a purely action scale, the last half hour is everything you could ask for. But from where the story is coming, it comes out of nowhere with no warnings or explanations which would have helped fill in some holes. It's just a weird ending that made me realize what a weird movie this was as a whole. Take away the performances from Redford and Gandolfini, and this movie is pretty bad in a cartoonish way. Go figure.
The Last Castle <----trailer (2001): **/****