[box cover]

The Last Castle

Prisons have often made the best settings for "inspirational" films, including such evergreen favorites as The Birdman of Alcatraz, Papillon, The Shawshank Redemption, and countless others. Certainly, the overall themes of these pictures offer little variance, trading on the principle that those who are imprisoned are being robbed of their essential humanity, and always by officials who are more corrupt and bloodless than the men they keep under lock and key. But if we can overlook the fact that prison films rarely break new ground, The Last Castle (2001) ranks among the better of its ilk. Robert Redford stars as U.S. Army Gen. Eugene Irwin, a three-star general with a legendary combat career who is court-martialed for defying a presidential order and plea-bargains a ten-year sentence, accepting the fact that a quiet retirement awaits his eventual release. But after he's admitted to a military prison overseen by the officious Col. Winter (James Gandolfini), a commandant who has never seen combat, the two quickly butt heads — it's a personality conflict exacerbated by the prisoners, who decry Col. Winter's heavy-handed authority and look to Gen. Irwin for leadership. The battle-scarred Irwin at first refuses to cast his lot with the general population, but a series of small, brutal events eventually leads him to marshal the inmates into his own personal army, with the goal of taking over the prison via a military operation — after all, as Gen. Irwin is fully aware, Col. Winter can be dismissed from his command if he ever loses control of the prison environment. Directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender), who may be one of the few directors in Hollywood history to also be a West Point graduate, The Last Castle paints the military virtues of courage, determination, and honor with broad strokes, and without apology. In fact, while the film was shot in early 2001, it arrived in U.S. theaters on Oct. 21, 2001, in the midst of one of the most patriotic periods in American history. Given that, it's surprising that it only grossed $18.2 million from a $60 million budget (although apparently an early ad campaign that featured an upside-down U.S. flag — an international sign of distress — confused some folks before DreamWorks pulled it). The Last Castle may not be the greatest prison drama in history, nor is it the finest military movie, but it certainly did deserve to find a larger audience. Shot at the mothballed Tennessee State Prison, with some marvelous additional constructions, Lurie indulges in his penchant for sweeping crane shots — indoors and outdoors — and to good effect. Redford offers a sturdy performance, and he still is one of the most affable leading men in the business despite his age and weathered looks. He is a joy to watch throughout, although he's easily one-upped by Gandolfini, who offers a more textured performance as the self-important Col. Winter, who never descends into mustache-twirling villainy and retains his essential humanity throughout — Winter isn't necessarily a bad man, but he's a feeble one, and he fails to recognize the qualities that make Gen. Irwin a natural leader who men will follow into any situation. The strong supporting cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Steve Burton, Delroy Lindo, and Clifton Collins Jr., and the final siege is lengthy and offers a few tactical surprises before the obligatory patriotic finale. A film that deserves a second chance on home video, DreamWorks' The Last Castle features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround (French 5.1 and English, French, and Spanish subtitles also are on board). Features are generous, including a commentary with director Lurie, an HBO "First Look" featurette (14 min.), eight deleted scenes with commentary by Lurie — all of which offer interesting ideas that eventually were abandoned — production notes, and cast and crew filmographies. Keep-case.

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