A year after his self-written and directed milestone The Contender, Rod Lurie falls inside Hollywood's movie machine to direct a lackluster prison/military action picture. Robert Redford exerts his standard workaday acting technique as General Irwin, a three-star general sentenced to a maximum-security military prison where he leads an uprising against the prison's immoral warden, Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini). The Last Castle unreels with a numbing lack of dramatic variety, much less any dynamic range from its cliched cast of prison characters.
Redford sets foot inside prison walls as a legendary United States General, and author of an esteemed book on military strategy called Burden of Command, before settling into his role as a revolt-leading captive. Colonel Winter is a fan of General Irwin and has taken pains to impress his star inmate with his collection of well-preserved military artifacts, and to acquire Irwin's autograph on his copy of the general's book. But the gloves come off when Irwin dismisses Winter's military assemblage as indication of a man who has never set foot into combat. Winter takes such umbrage at Irwin's flippant remark that he decides against getting the autograph. As the scene that sparks the fierce rivalry between the decorated General Irwin and the prison's glory-seeking warden, one wonders why Irwin's sense of military tact abandoned him at such a crucial introduction.
Gandolfini's tic-layered characterization of Winter is the strongest link in the movie. With overt articulation of his words yet containing a slight lisp, Gandolfini spells out his character's psychological repression with cunning grace.
The Last Castle falls apart in the third act, when the inmates execute a well-orchestrated attack against their many guards inside the prison walls like an oversimplified game of chess. Every jerry-rigged explosive device fires as planned and the inmate troops work together like a well-oiled machine. But the inevitability of Colonel Winter's defeat has already been sewn by his corrupt actions and Irwin comes into a more selfish light at the finale, as his passage to martyrdom becomes certain. In the end both rivals have taken advantage of the lesser men around them to elevate their own stature. It's an example of pride standing in for greed.