The Last Castle
Screenplay : David Scarpa and Graham Yost (story by David Scarpa)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Robert Redford (Gen. Irwin), James Gandolfini (Col. Winter), Mark Ruffalo (Yates), Steve Burton (Capt. Peretz), Delroy Lindo (Gen. Wheeler )
A few days before The Last Castle arrived in theaters, an article was published in Newsweek magazine in which a Marine officer name Dan Sullivan argued against the antimilitary culture that exists on many college campuses, especially in the Ivy League. Making the point that academic elitism disparages the role of the military and looks warily on any form of overt patriotism, Sullivan wrote, "Most of us know, and have known for decades, that our armed forces are composed of men and women for whom duty, honor, and country are enduring—not quaint and antiquated—values."
The Last Castle is constructed ideologically around that exact ideal. Judging from a bare-bone plot description, it wouldn't seem that way, though, as the movie takes place in a high-security military prison for soldiers-turned-criminals and overseen by a sadistic, passive-aggressive warden who doesn't mind killing an inmate now and then if it will assure order. Yet, if you look beneath the plot surface and see what the movie is really saying, it becomes immediately clear that The Last Castle is a jingoistic military action fantasy about the enduring power of what it means to be a soldier. In its world, an entire prison full of violent criminals can be brought together for a single purpose by appealing to the pride and dignity they once held as soldiers. For them, being part of the military was the greatest honor they ever knew, and they ironically rekindle that sense of honor by staging an elaborate prison revolt.
The story is set in motion with the arrival of a new prisoner, General Irwin (Robert Redford). Before his court-martial, Irwin was a three-star general who survive six years in a POW camp in Vietnam, did tours of duty in the Gulf War and in Bosnia, and penned a famous book The Burden of Command. During his long and distinguished career, he has become a hallowed name in military circles, a true war hero whose name carries with it the meaning of what it is to be soldier.
Irwin is taken to a high-security military prison known as "The Castle," which is overseen by Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini of The Sopranos). Winter at first appears to be a relatively decent human being, treating Irwin—who, in another time and place, would be his superior officer—with respect and courtesy. But, when Winter overhears Irwin make a disparaging remark about his collection of war memorabilia, suggesting that only a man who has never seen battle would find purpose in putting old bullets in a shiny glass case, Winter's face hardens and the battle of wills between them begins.
Redford, of course, is set up from the start as the upstanding golden-boy hero, even if Irwin remains sullen and uncommitted for the first portion of the film, ignoring other inmates' complaints about substandard medical treatment, cruel guards, and a few too many "accidental" deaths involving inmates shot in the head with rubber bullets. Irwin is determined to do his 10 years and go home; as a dedicated soldier, he knows that he has done something wrong and that he deserves the punishment for it. The movie makes the argument that good men sometimes do bad things, but they prove they are even better men by accepting their punishment for it.
But, soon Irwin cannot ignore what is happening under Winter's command, and his natural-born leadership skills begin to emerge. All the inmates gravitate under his command, although there is one, Yates (Mark Ruffalo, who was so good as the unreliable brother in You Can Count on Me), whose father spent time in a Hanoi POW camp with Irwin, who might become a Judas figure. Yates is generally despised by the other inmates because he is the bookie, taking bets on anything from the outcome of fistfights to whether or not Irwin will kill himself. Yet, as a good leader, Irwin immediately senses how Yates can be useful, and he also knows that Yates is the inmate to whom Winter will likely turn to gain an informant.
The last third of the movie involves Irwin turning the prison population from inmates to soldiers again as he leads a prison revolt. Bear in the mind that his purpose is not to escape or for anyone else to escape, for that matter. That would not be a noble cause. Rather, his only goal is to show that Winter cannot control the prison, which, under military code, means that he must be removed from his post. It is part of the movie's militaristic fantasy that all the other inmates seem to agree with this idea and none try to take advantage of it. Like Irwin, they are good men because they are soldiers, thus they know that they must do their time even if they take control of the prison from their nemesis.
Director Rod Lurie (The Contender) stages the final revolt with great relish. He keeps the details of the attack secret from us, so that it is a constant surprise as the inmates begin pulling out their elaborate weapons—cobbled-together catapults that launch flaming home-made bombs, lunch trays turned into shields, and so forth—and you might find yourself wondering later on when they had the time and where they got the materials to build it all. But, that is of little importance as the movie's final act builds in violent excitement until it drowns out all notions of questioning plausibility. It does what every good action movie should do: It takes you so deep into the action that you don't think about its basic ridiculousness until you're out of the theater.
The Last Castle is filled with the same pro-military ideology that has fueled war movies for decades—the pride of being a soldier, the nobility of strong human leaders, the necessity of risk, and the rewards of victory. But, it takes that ideology and submerges it—just barely—in an engaging prison melodrama that, while relying a little too much on stock characters and situations, still has the power to grab you at the gut level.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick