Movie-critic-turned-director Rod Lurie has made a career for himself in Hollywood with games of brinkmanship. His breakthrough, "Deterrence", featured Kevin Pollak ("3000 Miles to Graceland") as a President under threat of nuclear attack by Iraq, while his critically-acclaimed "The Contender" from last year featured the back-stabbing and backroom deals surrounding the appointment of a new Vice-President. With "The Last Castle", Lurie moves out into a political arena of a different sort, dramatizing the brinkmanship between the warden of a military prison and his newest inmate. And while the script may suffer from some implausibilities, the powerhouse performances of Robert Redford ("The Horse Whisperer") and James Gandolfini ("The Mexican") make "The Last Castle" a suspenseful and compelling combination of drama and action.
Redford plays three-star general Eugene Irwin whose actions has resulted in the death of eight men under his command and subsequently have made him the newest inmate at a military prison known as 'The Castle'. Unfortunately, the prison is run by a cruel paper-pusher who has 'never set foot on a battle field', Colonel Winter (Gandolfini). Under his command, prisoners are manipulated into fights, given substandard treatment, and occasionally murdered by the 'accidental' rubber bullet hits to the head. Despite his desire to just 'do his time and go home', Irwin finds himself disgusted by Winter's brutal tactics, and begins a campaign to have Winter removed from command. This triggers a high stakes 'chess game' which ultimately results in a full-scale war inside the prison.
For casting his two adversaries, Lurie couldn't have made better choices. Hollywood legend Redford is suitably charismatic and dignified as a disgraced general who finds himself compelled to confront the injustices around him, while rising star Gandolfini plays the equivalent of a schoolyard bully, whose bluster and sadism are a cover to hide his own insecurity. However, these two characters have a lot in common. They are both very intelligent, which leads to an engaging cat-and-mouse battle of wills, where they each try to outsmart one another. The two men are also very familiar with how the use of symbolism and ceremony can manipulate, motivate, and instill loyalty in the men under their leadership. In the end, a crumbling wall, a memorial for a fallen prisoner, and a flag end up making the difference between victory and defeat.
In addition to the two headliners, some notable appearances are featured in the supporting cast. Mark Ruffalo (who will appear in "Windtalkers" next summer) plays a prisoner whose loyalties are divided between the two camps while Delroy Lindo ("Gone in Sixty Seconds") plays a general who is both Irwin's long-time associate and Winter's commanding officer. Finally, Robin Wright ("The Pledge") also makes a brief and inexplicable appearance as Irwin's estranged daughter, though this plot point is quickly discarded once the rivalry between Irwin and Winter gains momentum.
Detractors of "The Last Castle" have pointed out the shortcomings during the film's exciting climax, which features a pitched battle between Irwin's fellow inmates and Winter's garrison. At times, the script does strain credibility, as the prisoners start unveiling all the wonderful weapons (including a catapult!) that they were able to construct without anyone even raising an eyebrow. However, despite such logical leaps of faith, "The Last Castle" is still a lot of fun to watch, offering a fascinating glimpse at the brinkmanship between two men, who are brought to life by two superb actors.