In Defense Of...The Last Castle

In Defense Of...The Last Castle

"In Defense Of..." is a series of posts spotlighting the overlooked, underappreciated, and unfairly maligned movies of our time.  Other films given the "In Defense Of" treatment so far include The Next Three Days, Multiplicity, Speed Racer, Meet Joe Black, Alfie (2004), MacGruber, The Island, and The Cable Guy.

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"Take a look at a castle. Any castle. Now break down the key elements that make it a castle. They haven't changed in a thousand years. 1: Location. A site on high ground that commands the territory as far as the eye can see. 2: Protection. Big walls, walls strong enough to withstand a frontal attack. 3: A garrison. Men who are trained and willing to kill. 4: A flag. You tell your men you are soldiers and that's your flag. You tell them nobody takes our flag. And you raise that flag so it flies high where everyone can see it. Now you've got yourself a castle. The only difference between this castle and all the rest is that they were built to keep people out. This castle is built to keep people in."

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When James Gandolfini passed away earlier this summer, it sent a shock wave through the hearts of film and TV fans all over the world.  As the tributes started pouring in from bloggers, journalists, celebrities, and more, Gandolfini's work on The Sopranos was widely, easily remembered.  His supporting roles in films like True Romance and Get Shorty earned warm accolades.  There was even mention of his final turn in the upcoming romantic comedy, Enough Said.  But, lost in the shuffle and all the tributes to Gandolfini was a nod to one of his finest roles outside of Tony Soprano.  One of my go-to Gandolfini reference points: The Last Castle.

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The Last Castle was unceremoniously released in theaters back on October 19, 2001.  Suffice to say, it didn't make much of an impact.  Audiences were still reeling from the events of September 11, and were slow to re-embrace the idea of going out to the movies for fun.  Critics didn't rally around it either (with 52% on rottentomatoes.com).  The movie only grossed $7 million on opening weekend, and went on to make a measly $18 million ($27 million worldwide), against a production budget of $72 million.  Make no mistake, The Last Castle was a flop.  A big one.  And, it probably helped pave the way for the eventual end of its studio, DreamWorks.

At the time of its release in 2001, Gandolfini's co-star in the movie, Robert Redford, was embarking on a mini-comeback of sorts.  Redford had been absent from the big screen for three years, having last appeared in 1998's The Horse Whisperer, which he also directed.  But, with the one-two punch of The Last Castle and Spy Game, which was released a month later, Redford seemed to be making a concerted effort to reclaim his A-list stardom.  His choice of these two projects speaks volumes as to his intentions.  Instead of going for some artsy indie, Redford embraced the big studio action flick.  Spy Game did a bit better at the box office, no doubt due to the inspired pairing of Redford with Brad Pitt, plus the general commercial glossiness of Tony Scott behind the camera (R.I.P., Mr. Scott).  It enjoys a better reputation than The Last Castle, that's for sure.  Yet, don't let the flop sweat of The Last Castle fool you.

The lasting appeal of The Last Castle, as far as I'm concerned, can be directly traced to the two films that most obviously inspired it: Cool Hand Luke and Crimson Tide.  I don't know about you, but I love those two movies, consider them classics, and am more than happy to go along for the ride with any movie wise enough to crib from them.  It mixes the rebel-in-prison flavor of Cool Hand Luke with the chess match battle of wits between military personnel of Crimson Tide.  There's even some Shawshank Redemption thrown in for good measure.  And, like the stars of those films (Newman, Hackman, Washington, Freeman, Robbins), The Last Castle features a doozy of a match-up: Redford vs. Gandolfini.

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In one corner, there's Redford, playing Army General Eugene Irwin, who begins the movie as the subject of a "Class A" prison transfer to a maximum security military prison.  Irwin's reputation precedes him - he's widely respected by almost everyone around him - prison guards included.  Irwin is clearly our hero character, and yet...he's in prison.  Why?  What did he do?  The screenwriters (David Scarpa and Graham Yost) and director (Rod Lurie) seem to enjoy the tease, making audiences wait until the 74-minute mark before getting an answer.  In the other corner, there's Gandolfini, as Colonel Winter, the tightly-wound, no-nonsense prison warden, who has, as Irwin so keenly points out, never set foot on a battlefield.  In a clever bit of characterization, Winter enjoys listening to classical music in his office that oversees the prison yard - the composer?  Salieri.  Gandolfini is definitely the Salieri to Redford's Mozart here.

It doesn't take long for Irwin to bond with his fellow inmates - all of them soldiers - and take steps to command them.  This doesn't sit well with Winter, who uses increasingly violent tactics (rubber bullets to the head!) to assert his dominance over the prisoners and, well, Irwin himself.  It all builds to a classic, winner-take-all battle to reclaim the castle, and win the hearts of its prisoners.  Irwin sees the best in each of them; Winter sees the worst.  Both characters have their faults, and for most of the running time, the filmmakers do a decent job of stacking the decks evenly in favor of each character.  Eventually though, Winter becomes the all-out bad guy and the audience turns against him, but credit to Gandolfini for never going the easy, "I'm pure EEEEEVIL!" route.

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This was a big departure for Gandolfini at the time.  Winter is a quiet, seething character who is not prone to outburst.  It's a far cry from anti-hero Tony Soprano, who, after only 3 years of being on air, had quickly risen to the top echelon of TV characters.  As for Redford, good lord, man.  The guy is pure charisma.  Irwin can be a cocky asshole, but Redford makes that cockiness noble and endearing.  Even if the idea of one man inspiring an entire prison to take action threatens to hit a false note, Redford never lets that happen.  He owns the screen, and proves yet again why he is one of the best movie stars of all time.

It's also fun to see some well-known supporting actors get a chance to shine.  Mark Ruffalo, hot off of You Can Count on Me, makes one of his first bids at mainstream stardom, as Yates, the prison bookie and habitual skeptic.  Clifton Collins, Jr. also impresses in a small, but pivotal role as the doomed Aguilar.  And, then there's Delroy Lindo!  Remember him?  Lindo was everywhere in the '90s and early '00s, but has been conspicuously absent from movie screens in recent years (perhaps another candidate for What the Hell Happened To...).  His role is even smaller than Collins, but Lindo is always a welcome presence.

Apart from the performances, there are many other things to admire here.  The art direction is a thing of beauty.  The military prison is cleanly designed, huge in scale, and is almost a character unto itself.  I love the layout of the prison yard, and the giant window in Winter's office that lets him see everything that's happening in the yard.  The thought that went into the design pays off big once the action hits.  The viewer has a clear understanding of where everyone is located and what is happening, which, funny enough, doesn't happen as much as it should in action movies.  I also like the pacing - Lurie takes his time with the story.  It isn't rushed.  The rivalry between Winter and Irwin unfolds organically.

All that being said, not everything works in The Last Castle.  There's a half-assed subplot involving Robin Wright as Irwin's estranged daughter, that really only results in one prison visit scene.  Also, as good as the character development may be among the leads, there is a huge gap in characterization between Ruffalo (the third lead) and all the other prisoners.  Most of them are just nameless, faceless extras in the crowd.  We cheer for them because we like Redford, but the script doesn't give the viewer any other reason to care.  The music (by Jerry Goldsmith) does the trick, but errs too often on the side of gooey patriotism and sentimentality.

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In the grand scheme of things, these are minor quibbles though.  The Last Castle is big, rousing action entertainment.  The story is strong and instantly engaging.  The actors are dynamite.  It's one of those movies that proves totally re-watchable - the kind you can easily get lost in if it were to turn up on cable as you're flipping through the channels.  It may not have been much of a career changer for Gandolfini, and it certainly didn't flex his muscles at the box office, but the movie shows his range as an actor and deserves some love.  Gandolfini was one of the greats.  If The Sopranos is Exhibit A in support of that statement, The Last Castle is Exhibit B.  Or, at the very least, Exhibit C.

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