The Last Castle Review
After the events of September 11th it was not completely clear which direction Hollywood would head. Initially, gung-ho patriotic action pictures were off the agenda, with Arnie’s Collateral Damage being an immediate (though temporary) casualty. Inevitably though, it wasn’t long before the “flag-wavers” were back big time at the US box office, with such fare as Behind Enemy Lines cleaning up. But in that short period immediately after September 11th, other less obviously patriotic movies suffered at the box office, and The Last Castle could certainly be said to fall into that category.
The Last Castle is set in a military prison run heavy-handedly by the sadistic warden Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini). Into this prison is brought an unusual prisoner, the distinguished General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) – for an initially undisclosed crime. Winter at first regards Irwin as a war hero, and someone who should not be brought in to a military prison – and likewise in their first meeting Irwin says that all he wants is to “just do my time and go home”. But whilst scurrying off to grab a copy of Irwin’s book to get him to autograph it, he overhears Irwin saying that his collection of war memorabilia shows that he’s a man who’s “never set foot on a battlefield”, and so Winter's ego is smashed and the antagonism between the two men begins. Irwin really does just want to keep his head down and do his time, and when the prisoners come to him with grievances about the sadism of Winter and his guards he is not interested. But when he discovers how the men are being totally de-humanized and brutalized his natural leadership skills come to the surface, and he leads them in a revolt against Winter.
The principal idea of the conflict between a once great man and a man who was never great (but thinks he is) is the potential basis for a very interesting story. Indeed, in the hands of two fine actors in Redford and Gandolfini this part of the movie works pretty well. Unfortunately, other aspects of the movie drag it crashing back down to earth. Firstly, the whole recruitment of the prisoners in Irwin’s revolt that leads to a (literally) flag-waving finale is somewhat unsavoury. These are men of mostly undisclosed crimes – but we are led to believe that most are serious – who are being turned into an upstanding unit of men by Irwin. The moral here seems to be that all American soldiers – no matter what crimes they have committed – are really all-American heroes just in need of the right leader. It feels like they really wanted to set this movie in an enemy prison, so that all the prisoners could generally be regarded as out-and-out heroes. If it had been made now, they probably would have.
The second problem with the film is much more basic, being the extremely dumb action of the finale. The attack on Winter and his men at the end of the film is done with all manner of contraptions that the prisoners seem to have spirited out of nowhere. The use of makeshift rocket launchers made out of gas tanks, shields from meal trays, and so on; it all looks like a bad episode of MacGyver. Any of the good story development work for the majority of the movie is thus thrown away in the last fifteen minutes.
The final score that I’m therefore giving to this movie is a compromise. The face-off between Redford’s prisoner and Gandolfini’s sadistic prison commander works well, played out by two excellent actors – and warrants an “8”. But the ridiculous finale, coupled with an American flag-waving message of a highly dubious nature musters about a “4”. So the “6” is the average of the two, and “average” would probably be about the right word for the movie, ultimately.
The image is framed at a fairly wide 2.40:1 in an anamorphic presentation. The predominant colour in this prison-based movie is unsurprisingly grey, but when other colours are there they are represented well and the image is generally of good quality.
There is a whole selection of various soundtracks available on this disc. The ones of main interest are the English Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks. Both have good definition and plenty of use of all channels. As frequently occurs however, the DTS track has a lot more power and the big action sequences fill the room better, making it the preferential track on my system.
There are also English Dolby Surround 2.0 and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks provided.
The first thing to mention is that this is one of those discs to warm the heart of all widescreen television owners, as all the extra material is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The extras themselves are:
The commentary by director Rod Lurie attempts to be informative to those interested in filmmaking, and largely succeeds. Lurie talks about the filmmaking processes that were used, and is honest to point out where he felt he got it wrong as well as where he got it right. The frequent use of the diopter lens to create the large depth-of-field shots is discussed, among other things. One criticism: like so many other commentaries, the director feels the need to be gushingly over-complimentary about his actors. Otherwise, not too bad.
The featurette is HBO First Look: Inside the walls of the Last Castle. Being an HBO “First Look”er it runs for (exactly) 15 minutes. It covers all the required bases for a film like this, that is, interviews, behind the scenes footage, outtakes, a look at the stunts, and a little information about the “castle” itself. Downsides here are the usual mutual backslapping and the fact that a stint on General Hospital leads actor Steve Burton to be referred to as a “world renowned soap star”.
There are nine deleted scenes which although in the same anamorphic format as the main feature are sometimes a little grainier in image quality. As the film was already over two hours it was inevitable that there would be some trimmed back material. Optional director’s commentary explains why the scenes were cut. Some were just improvised sequences that were experimented with while the rest of the cast waited for the two leads to arrive on set, but one farcical sequence involving metal spatulas being plugged into the mains and used as a defibrillator was removed for being “one MacGyver scene too many”. Quite.
The production notes section provides quite a few text pages of information and is worth a look. There is plenty of detail here about the actual location shooting, for example, over and above that mentioned in the featurette. It does appear to end rather abruptly, for some reason.
The cast information contains fairly extensive information about not just Redford and Gandolfini, but also goes a fair way down the cast list. Likewise the filmmakers section covers all the major crew personnel and uncovers such facts as that director Rod Lurie is a West Point graduate.
Finally, the theatrical trailer is presented anamorphically and with full 5.1 sound. Whereas the film itself does not disclose the crimes that Redford’s character has committed until a good way in, it is “spoilered” for you here, so beware.
There are no ROM based extras here.
As previously stated, this film is difficult to judge well, as it is a mixture of the good in the play-off between Redford’s and Gandolfini’s characters, and the bad in a dumb “MacGyver” style finale and some heavy-handed American flag waving. The DVD is technically decent and has extras that were as good as could reasonably be expected, so if you want to see this movie, the disc is worth obtaining.