And as a disgraced former general in a military prison for a crime that goes unmentioned until it makes for a convenient plot twist, Redford acts like he's on his summer vacation. He lobs wisecracks and kicks back until he's forced to lead a mass rebellion that will conclude when he hoists the Stars and Stripes (and even then he doesn't break a sweat). There's lots of flag talk and flag-waving onscreen, which may be enough to generate cheap applause for the film, but it feels as hollow as when a politician wraps himself in Old Glory to distract from a near-nonexistent agenda.
Director Rod Lurie, a military veteran and former film critic for Los Angeles radio, is swiftly developing a reputation for ham-handed political movies; his is a brand of unblinking and unthinking patriotism. His debut, Deterrence, advocated nuking Iraq, and last year's grossly overrated The Contender posited Democrats as eccentric and principled in the face of those evil, woman-hating Republicans. The Last Castle continues the trend: It plays like a conservative's parody of the ACLU's alleged position that all prisoners are noble and good men who'll work together at the drop of a hat. This is attributed to the fact that they're all ex-military. As a matter of fact, it appears that the biggest disciplinary problem at "the castle" is that the inmates insist on saluting one another. The horror, the horror.
Presiding over this unruly bunch is Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), who at first seems like a nice guy but is seen early on listening to Salieri operas, thus conveniently tipping off anyone who's seen Amadeus that he's a villain. Initially welcoming Redford's General Irwin (a veteran of Vietnam, the Gulf War and Bosnia) with open arms, the colonel soon walks out of the room and overhears Irwin bad-mouthing his military memorabilia; Irwin insists that anyone with such a collection has obviously never seen a battlefield, a comment for which he's swiftly escorted to a cell. Winter takes out his ire on all the prisoners: He allows only one basketball in the prison yard the next day, resulting in a fistfight that ends when one participant is shot with rubber bullets. Having previously proclaimed his intention to serve his time quietly, Irwin decides he's going to challenge the system, which he does for the most part by building a wall in the courtyard.
The usually reliable and occasionally wonderful Gandolfini is completely adrift here -- as miscast as Redford -- playing what initially appears to be a James Woods parody that evolves into a close impersonation of Joe Mantegna's Fat Tony character on The Simpsons. The film's only saving graces are Delroy Lindo as a former comrade of Irwin's and You Can Count on Me's Mark Ruffalo as a drug dealer who takes bets on every aspect of prison life. Ruffalo delivers on his promise in a film that doesn't deserve it.
The Last Castle's as out of touch with reality as every other entry in the Lurie canon. It's rather convenient that the prison has so many spaces in which prisoners can gather without being guarded while one of them makes dramatic speeches encouraging rebellion. It's also nice of the guards not to arm themselves with anything more deadly than rubber bullets and a fire hose, even as the inmates are permitted access to petroleum by-products and tanks of compressed gas. Then there's the warden, a military colonel who must have some memories of boot camp, yet has no idea of how to discipline his men or play them off against each other. He even refuses to throw Irwin into solitary because Irwin guilt-trips him with the insinuation that it would be an unsporting way to win.
Lurie's politics aside, it's astonishing that a man who once reviewed films keeps churning out movies full of cinema's most hollow clichés; indeed, he turns out stuff that's even more disjointed and improbable than the most mediocre fare. It's as though he spent years in darkened theaters just to learn from -- and borrow from -- the bad stuff. Then again, those who feel like the flag itself is worth cheering for in any context may be won over by a film that lectures us on the proper meaning of a salute ("Respect for yourself, the service and the flag"). Chances are, however, that simply staring at an actual flag for two hours will be a more moving experience.