Rod Lurie's very manly movie "The Last Castle" opens and ends with an American flag being flown proudly -- rippling in the bright, cold, free air -- above the spartan windows and turrets of a military prison that resembles a castle. Even in a climate where many Americans have a renewed fondness for the Stars and Stripes (I've always been more of a Union Jack miniskirt girl myself, and even I've taken more warmly to it these days), those flags are a bit much. Ditto the way rufty-tufty prison warden Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), when he's not busy ordering his goons to blam random prisoners with rubber bullets for no good reason, lovingly polishes his antique military firearms. (The camera lingers on the sight of the soft cloth caressing the metal -- oh, the irony!)
It all adds up to something, but it's not as big a something as Lurie would like to believe: The message of "The Last Castle" is that following military rules blindly is a very, very bad thing, but that following a quietly powerful and charismatic military leader -- in this case, Robert Redford's disgraced three-star General Irwin -- is a very, very good thing. In other words, if you just figure out your proper role and learn how to play it, everything will turn out for the best.
In "The Last Castle," the trouble begins when the disgraced but ever-dignified General Irwin is transferred to "the Castle," a maximum-security military prison in which hundreds of convicts suffer under Colonel Winter's iron rule. Irwin makes it known almost immediately that he has no respect for Winter; Winter fights back by trying to break him. The animosity between the two escalates until Irwin -- who has rather effortlessly earned the trust of his fellow inmates, including the surly Yates (Mark Ruffalo), whose dad served under Irwin during the Vietnam War -- hatches a plan to undermine Winter's power.
"The Last Castle" isn't aggressively pro-military in the worst way, but Lurie (along with writers David Scarpa and Graham Yost) seems to be walking pretty gingerly along the top of a very narrow and rickety fence. "The Last Castle" desperately wants to be the "Henry V" of prison revolt movies -- a picture that makes you understand the value of war when it's absolutely necessary, by coaxing you to sympathize with a ragtag group of prisoners who are clearly oppressed. But the themes that ring out most loudly in the end -- some men are just born leaders; others do best if they just conform -- are numbingly retrograde. "The Last Castle" is comfortably conservative without being particularly exciting.
For one thing, the conflict between Gandolfini's Winter and Redford's Irwin doesn't crackle nearly as much as it should. Gandolfini, playing one of those "small" men who puffs up his stature by being a by-the-book bully, pulls off some cleverly timed jokes -- he doesn't make the mistake of chomping down on his role, as some less intuitive actors might, and it makes him an enjoyable villain most of the time.
But forced to stand up against Redford's quietly gleaming dignity, he's sunk. Redford's Irwin has been around the block a few times: He gets lots of hyperexpository sentences that begin with things like "I had a friend in Hanoi ..." and "Three years ago in Bosnia ..." Redford's performance is formal and stiff: It's hard to play a role like this with any looseness, although it probably doesn't help that the press materials for "The Last Castle" refer to him as a "screen legend" -- isn't that sort of a kind synonym for "fossil"?
Yet Redford looks better here than he has in most of his recent movies, especially "The Horse Whisperer," in which he seemed to have been shot through layers of flattering gauze. He's wholly more believable, and more appealing, when he's unafraid to look his age. (And at 64, he's not even that old.) It could be that not playing a romantic lead takes some pressure off Redford -- I understand how difficult it is for beautiful actresses to grow older, but male actors must have their own struggles with it, too. Redford comes off well in "The Last Castle" because he looks comfortable with who he is, which, you could argue, is the root of all sexual charisma to begin with.
Redford has all too often been an actor who just tries too hard, and it rarely serves him well. Still, even if much of his dialogue in "The Last Castle" is stiff and comic-book masculine, there are a few moments where he lets down his guard. In one scene, with Delroy Lindo as a general who's paying him a visit, he lets out a zinger of a crude remark, and its off-the-cuff snap is a wonderful surprise.
But moments like that are rare in Lurie's oppressively rugged movie. On the basis of "The Last Castle" and his last picture, "The Contender," it's probably safe to assume that Lurie is the kind of director who thinks he's packing his movies with important food for thought. "The Contender," allegedly a picture with a solid feminist core (the movie's dedication read "For our daughters"), actually suggested that if a woman politician is falsely accused of a transgression, she's better off if she takes the high road and refuses to defend herself. That way she can just sit back and play the role of moral princess, while the more powerful men around her leap to her defense and clean up the mess.
"The Last Castle" is far less offensive because at least it functions on some level as an action movie: Guys get into fistfights; stuff gets blown up. Its flabby logic isn't its sole excuse for existing. But there's one crucial problem: Even with those fights and explosions, it's still deadly dull. By the time Irwin starts edifying one young prisoner on the history of the military salute ("You know where saluting comes from? It comes from medieval times ..."), it's time to head for the hills. "Follow the leader" was one of the most boring childhood games imaginable, and it doesn't improve with age.