- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

"The Last Castle" may prove the last gasp for a certain school of lunacy among Hollywood polemicists. The general disreputable idea is to synthesize melodramas about prison uprisings with combat melodramas about redeemable military felons and troublemakers.

This movie has a colonel named Winter (James Gandolfini), the commandant of a military prison doubled by the former Tennessee State Penitentiary, provoking the insurrectionary wrath and genius of his newest inmate. That prisoner is a celebrated general named Irwin (Robert Redford). On the face of things, I regard Mr. Gandolfini as a more commanding and perversely sympathetic figure than Mr. Redford, but the film's stereotypical system of snobbery operates on the assumption that an aging romantic star will always outrank a flourishing but less than glamorous or comely character actor.

Mr. Redford's illustrious troublemaker is said to have pleaded guilty during a court-martial that stemmed from a bungled mission to Burundi. The circumstances remain hazy but sound like an expedient variation on the "Black Hawk Down" calamity in Somalia (destined to reach the screen under Ridley Scott's direction next spring).

Mr. Gandolfini's character is the most deferential of jailers upon meeting his better. Col. Winter is more of a curator than a jailer, one gathers. He prides himself on a collection of memorabilia in his office. Irwin insults it as the sort of hobby that would appeal only to a man who never had seen combat. He does so while the commandant is not quite out of earshot, about to retrieve his new guest's best seller, "The Burdens of Command," from a bookshelf in order to secure an autograph.

The pivotal misunderstanding concerns a simple-minded, stammering prisoner named Aguilar, a politically correct underdog played by Clifton Collins Jr. His compulsive need to salute Irwin leads to a cruel punishment by Winter: prolonged standing in a rainstorm.

Before long, Irwin is enduring his own hoked-up calvary: an afternoon of hauling rocks from one place to another in the yard and then back again. Mr. Redford strips to the waist to reveal stigmata: back scars ascribed to Irwin's years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. Similar grotesque and unmerited allusions to Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, the intifada, "Ivan Denisovich," the Attica prison riot are wrenched out of context time and again to rationalize Irwin's essentially cavalier decision to foment an uprising and destroy Winter's command, such as it is.

Irwin's objective never is coherent or defensible. Nothing looks all that intolerable until Irwin and Winter get into a spite-and-malice cycle. The general's humiliation and conquest of the colonel is bought at the expense of several men who scarcely need or deserve extra misery.

The filmmakers ultimately stoop to a death scene that borrows the U.S. flag in order to deify a kamikaze gesture of defiance and sheer vanity.

The disgraceful connotations of "The Last Castle" may or may not inconvenience moviegoers who prefer to humor the prevailing ground rules and cheer for Irwin's Irregulars when they assault Winter's unfortunate guards, using guerrilla tactics so clever that they emulate medieval siege warfare. In this elaborately demented case, we're expected to chose sides while one batch of American soldiers battles another to the death, over what is essentially a personality spat between rival officers.

The reports that Hollywood was feeling terribly sensitive about movie content in the aftermath of Sept. 11 must have been exaggerated. "The Last Castle" is so awesomely oblivious to the current crisis that it could be mistaken for a Taliban fund-raiser.

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