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The Last Castle

  the last castle
Mark Ruffalo watches Sundance seize the Castle.

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The marketing campaign for "The Last Castle" (IMDb listing) was changed following the Sept. 11 attacks because its prominent use of an upside-down American flag—the symbol for distress—could be perceived as being in poor taste. In the new ads, emphasis is placed on the supposed cat-and-mouse interplay of "Castle" stars Robert Redford and James Gandolfini.

They should have used the flag.

That flag has star power right now—enough star power to conceal this film's one-dimensional plot until well after the credits roll. This isn't to say "The Last Castle" is a bad film. It's not. It's not a particularly good film either, but given the tragedy we witnessed and the ensuing life-changes that have touched us all, two hours immersed in honor, bravery and respect—even in a flawed movie—are two hours well spent.

The story centers on freshly court-martialed Gen. Irwin (Robert Redford) as he's sent to a military prison run with coy ruthlessness by Col. Winter (James Gandolfini). Winter initially welcomes Irwin as a hero, but moments into their first encounter Irwin inadvertently insults Winter's lack of battlefield experience, thereby solidifying their future as adversaries.

Irwin's introduction into the general prison population is seamless, for despite being hardened, violent criminals, the inmates all possess souls of soldiers (which is useful during the third act's gung-ho insurrection). Recognizing Irwin's status, a cluster of prisoners tries to convince the general that Col. Winter and his cronies have resorted to murderous acts in the name of order. Irwin, the reluctant hero, ignores their stories but soon sees for himself how Winter uses deadly "accidents" to his advantage. Being a one-dimensional man of action, Irwin decides to oust Winter from power.

But the ousting is easy. From the beginning Irwin manhandles and manipulates Winter, which means "The Last Castle's" cat-and-mouse marketing is a big lie. Worse still, Redford's performance wipes Gandolfini across the screen. Gandolfini's strengths are his brooding intensity and rage-filled eruptions, but neither is revealed in this film. Instead, he employs a quiet monotone and a bad habit of enunciating every damn syllable in his dialogue. He sounds like William Shatner after a NyQuil binge.

Redford, however, brings out the old-school charm that made "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting" so fun to watch. As it's written, the role of Gen. Irwin is straightforward and, in the hands of a less interesting actor, dull as jury duty. But Redford injects humor and genuine righteousness into Irwin; elements that make his pre-battle rally speeches ring true.

The supporting cast is a cliched array of "Dirty Dozen"-esque prison misfits and degenerates, but amidst their ranks you'll find Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count on Me"). Ruffalo goes toe-to-toe with Redford and, in limited screentime, unveils the film's only legitimate character development. His transition from selfish opportunist to born leader is sudden and rough, but Ruffalo smooths the edges and makes it almost believable.

Also noteworthy is Rod Lurie's development as a director. His debut effort, last year's "The Contender," was a technically deficient political thriller propped up by strong performances. With "Castle" Lurie is honing his craft through better shot positioning and sleeker pacing. "Castle" by itself is largely forgettable, but in years to come it could prove to be an important step in Lurie's career.

"The Last Castle" won't be an Oscar contender and its blip on the cinematic radar will quickly fade as the holiday rush approaches, but for the moment it serves as a decent autumn diversion.

And that flag looks great.

Filmfodder Grade: C+

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