A mini-controversy has erupted over the publicity campaign for "The Last Castle," a middling prison drama that pits a prisoner played by aging superstar Robert Redford against a warden portrayed by "Sopranos" boss James Gandolfini. An upside-down American flag, flown as a symbol of distress in the film, was initially front and center in the movie's poster. Though the image was understandably yanked after the terrible events of Sept. 11, it nonetheless remained attached to some of "The Last Castle's" other promotional materials.
Director Rod Lurie (the mastermind of last year's overwrought political fable "The Contender") can only hope that the flap distracts from the predictability and mediocrity of the film itself. It's a testosterone-injected thriller that asks viewers to sympathize with a group of hardened criminals, including murderers, drug smugglers and, presumably, those convicted of sexual crimes. Stereotypes -- the brave, handicapped soldier; the wise veteran; the snitch; the unlikely hero -- are borrowed from combat movies and jail pictures alike. Contrivances abound (including hidden weapons of mass destruction), and the filmmaker hedges his bets with a series of dramatic explosions and bloody exchanges.
Redford has been smartly cast as three-star army General Irwin, newly arrived at a century-old military prison (actually the Tennessee State Penitentiary) to serve a 10-year sentence for directly disobeying orders during wartime. He has been court-martialed for undertaking a brave but foolhardy mission that resulted in a dramatic loss of life for the soldiers under his command.
"They should be naming bases after him, not sending him here," Colonel Winter (Gandolfini) tells his eager assistant, Captain Peretz (Steve Burton). The colonel, a combat wannabe, spends much of his time polishing his antique swords, assembling his collection of military paraphernalia for display, and reading texts on warfare -- including one book penned by Irwin himself. Winter's office is a bastion of gentility: Classical music plays in the background and lemonade is available to his visitors. It's a stark contrast to the cruelties he visits on the convicts.
Though Irwin is at first uninterested in using his celebrity to shed a light on the supposed abuse of his fellow inmates, he eventually warms to the cause -- in part because of the treatment of Aguilar (Clifton Collins Jr.), a young Italian with a speech impediment. Soon enough, the men are saluting the new guy on the block, calling him "chief" and obeying his orders. A private war looms.
Though a little worn around the edges, Redford is still sun-bronzed, blonde and charismatic. He escapes from the film relatively unscathed, as does the razor-sharp Gandolfini. Delroy Lindo has a solid cameo as a general who is assigned to oversee the prison, but Mark Ruffalo's turn as a weasel of a prison bookie is an uneven follow-up to his masterful work in "You Can Count on Me."
Viewers willing to buy the righteousness of the convicts' struggle may be thoroughly entertained by "The Last Castle," but others will find themselves bored and a little put off by Lurie's unsubtle manipulations. The guy is clearly unafraid to push the emotional buttons.