Much of the potential dramatic juice has been drained out of "The Last Castle," a disappointingly pedestrian prison meller that falls between stools artistically and politically. Starring Robert Redford as an incarcerated three-star general who rallies fellow prisoners in rebellion against the tyrannical warden played by James Gandolfini.

Much of the potential dramatic juice has been drained out of “The Last Castle,” a disappointingly pedestrian prison meller that falls between stools artistically and politically. Starring Robert Redford as an incarcerated three-star general who rallies his fellow prisoners in rebellion against the tyrannical warden played by James Gandolfini, pic aims to be rousing but is such a rehash of age-old mutiny and prison conventions that it seems like play-acting. Although the film itself sends out mixed messages about the military, patriotism and their trappings, and arrives at a tricky moment in terms of public sentiment about same, this DreamWorks release should open well, based on the cast and a heavy TV promo campaign, on its way to moderately good eventual B.O.

Former film critic and West Point grad Rod Lurie’s third feature, after the pretentious and unconvincing indie “Deterrence” and the more engaging topical popcorn picture “The Contender,” could have been much more effective had it been pitched in one of at least two different directions: On the one hand, toplined by a star with a tough guy/conservative/military screen persona, such as Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis, same material might have produced a kick-ass, combustively confrontational drama of vast mass appeal; on the other, screenplay by first-time scenarist David Scarpa and “Speed” scripter Graham Yost possesses a latent anti-authoritarian streak that reminds of early ’70s filmmaking and might have been dynamite in the hands of a director like Sidney Lumet in his “Serpico”- “Dog Day Afternoon” period.

As it is, Lurie has steered a mild middle course, with against-type casting that results in two interesting lead performances but can’t surmount the standard-issue secondary characters and slack presentation that pales next to what’s done on HBO’s “Oz” on a regular basis. Most unusual stroke, in fact, is the casting of Redford as veteran General Eugene Irwin, a highly esteemed, thinking man’s soldier — a former Vietnam POW and a veteran of campaigns in the Gulf War and Bosnia — who ended up in the Leavenworth-like “castle” for having intentionally disobeyed the commander in chief’s directive to evacuate during a mission in Burundi, a decision that led to the execution of eight men.

Although clearly charismatic enough to play a natural leader (with the character’s sterling credentials plus his looks, it’s a wonder Irwin never went into politics), Redford carries ideological/image baggage that is the exact opposite of a career militarist. But while he lacks the don’t-push-me steeliness of a normal action hero, Redford introduces more subtle elements into his characterization that reveal telling aspects of this man’s personality. In a visitors’ room meeting with his daughter, he communicates a remoteness that confirms her claim that “You weren’t a father at all”; an uncredited Robin Wright Penn does a nice, understated job in her single scene as Rosalie. More important, given Irwin’s abrupt and undermotivated transformation from docile prisoner to impassioned rebel, Redford helps matters considerably by suggesting that under his stature and medals may just lie the heart of a mischievous bad boy.

As Irwin’s antagonist, Col. Winter, Gandolfini supplies the picture’s only other unexpected twist. Instead of delivering a full-throttle sadist, a modern-day Captain Bligh who inspires instant hatred and automatic thoughts of mutiny, the “Sopranos” star, who stole “The Mexican” with his sensitive and amusing take on a gay hitman, here makes the villain a fastidious, prissy milquetoast provoked over the edge by an inferiority complex for never having been tested in battle and for fear that he is not a “real” man.

These two offbeat portrayals give the picture its only real distinction but, paradoxically, also help reduce the confrontational combustibility. When Irwin first arrives at the old prison (actually the 110-year-old former Tennessee State Penitentiary), Winter is respectfully courteous of his celebrated new inmate, to the point of asking the disgraced general to sign the copy of the latter’s tome, “The Burden of Command,” he keeps so neatly on shelves along with his other books and continuously polished collection of military memorabilia.

Informed by other prisoners about the bad conditions and Winter’s heavy hand, Irwin, like Bogart in “Casablanca,” insists he doesn’t want to get involved. But questionable incidents begin piling up, Irwin himself is punished and, nearly an hour in, Winter rightly becomes convinced that the general is building an army under his command in the warden’s own big house.

Considerable screen time is devoted to the building, demolition and rebuilding of a stone wall in the prison’s courtyard, and to a stammering prisoner named Aguilar (Clifton Collins Jr.) who is very involved with it; this is the Sal Mineo role, a sentimentalized character you just know is doomed from the moment he walks on. “You Can Count on Me” discovery Mark Ruffalo is OK in another predictable part as the cynical bookie paged to be Winter’s spy, and George W. Scott is the hulking black giant who’s actually gentle as a lamb. Standout among the rank-and-file is Brian Goodman, who is genuinely scary as the man who holds out the longest from joining Irwin’s revolution.

The risky final act battle in the prison yard to overthrow Winter turns out to have been very well planned by chess expert Irwin, who is able to use improvised weapons, cunning strategy and startling surprise against Winter, whose lack of leadership qualities becomes all too evident when put to the test. Quasi-ironic, semi-patriotic ending has all the impact of fireworks set off in dense fog.

Storytelling lacks snap and urgency, and the middling talent for lurid fun Lurie brought to “The Contender” is largely missing this time out, replaced by an inflated sense of significance and an infatuation with swooping crane shots. Visual palette is dominated by gray-blues.

Having wrapped shooting only in June, pic is reaching screens after only four months’ post-production, an impressive feat in this day and age.

The Last Castle

Production

A DreamWorks Pictures release of a Robert Lawrence production. Produced by Lawrence. Executive producer, Don Zepfel. Directed by Rod Lurie. Screenplay, David Scarpa, Graham Yost, story by Scarpa.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Shelly Johnson; editors, Michael Jablow, Kevin Stitt; music, Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; art director, Lawrence A. Hubbs; set designers, Steven M. Saylor, Mark Hitchler, Barry Lehrman; set decorators, Daniel L. May, Eloise C. Stammerjohn; costume designer, Ha Nguyen; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Jay Meagher; assistant director, William M. Elvin; second unit director-stunt coordinator, Mic Rodgers; second unit camera, Jonathan Taylor; casting, Deborah Aquila, Mary Jo Slater. Reviewed at the AMC Century City, L.A., Oct. 15, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 131 MIN.

With

Gen. Eugene Irwin - Robert Redford
Col. Winter - James Gandolfini
Yates - Mark Ruffalo
Gen. Jim Wheeler - Delroy Lindo
Aguilar - Clifton Collins Jr.
Capt. Peretz - Steve Burton
Beaupre - Brian Goodman
Dellwo - Paul Calderon
Doc - Frank Military
Enriquez - Michael Irby
Duffy - Samuel Ball
Cutbush - Jeremy Childs
Thumper - George W. Scott

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