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THE LAST CASTLE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo
Director: Rod Lurie
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Dreamworks
Features: See Review
Length: 133 Minutes
Release Date: March 5, 2002

“Take a look at a castle, any castle. Now break down the key elements that make it a castle. They haven’t changed in a thousand years.

“One, location: a sight on high ground that commands the territory as far as the eye can see.

“Two, protection: big walls, walls strong enough to withstand a frontal attack.

“Three, a garrison: men who are trained and willing to kill.

“And four, a flag: you tell your men you’re soldiers and that’s our flag. You tell them nobody takes our flag. And you raise that flag so it flies high where everyone can see it.

“Now, you’ve got yourself a castle. The only difference between this castle and all the rest is that they were built to keep people out. This castle was built to keep people in.”

Film ****

Director Rod Lurie, who made a name for himself last year with his daring political drama, The Contender, makes an even bigger step as a director with The Last Castle. This is a glorious Hollywood studio system picture that is remarkably reminiscent of classic underdog pictures of yesteryear like Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape. And who better to cast in the lead than a legendary actor like Robert Redford. Redford, whose track record includes so many countless classic pictures, that in a strange way, he can be looked at in the same way that the characters in the film look at his legendary character.

Redford, in a performance that should have merited him an Oscar nod, portrays Gen. Eugene Irwin, a former POW in Vietnam, as well as a highly decorated three-star general who becomes the latest addition to the population of a highly secured military prison which truly resembles that of a castle. Irwin has received a ten-year sentence for disobeying a direct order that resulted in the death of 8 of his men. Upon his arrival, Irwin is a more than welcome guest since most of the men are aware of his legendary status.

Amazed and stunned, however, by his arrival is the prison’s commander, Col. Winter, played by James Gandolfini in a wonderfully subtle, sadistic turn. Winter idolizes Irwin right from the get-go, attempting even that of a slick dinner welcome on his first night. Irwin soon finds out, through information from fellow inmates, that there is nothing about Winter or the prison itself that is subtle. Inmates have allegedly been shot in the head by highly trained security guards. The inmates strongly believe that given Irwin’s status, he can talk to somebody in Washington about the situation, but all Irwin wants to do is do his time at the castle, and go home.

It isn’t before long however that Irwin and Winter become thorns in each other’s side. Winter strictly prohibits the saluting of any of the fellow inmates, who he no longer considers soldiers, but Irwin finds it in him to teach these prisoners to not forget who and what they are, which is indeed, soldiers. One inmate that doesn’t buy into Irwin’s game is Yates (Mark Ruffalo) whose father served with Irwin, but Yates never saw the greatness in him that Irwin saw.

The terrific storytelling in The Last Castle builds up to a remarkable climatic action sequence, which occupies the final half hour of the movie. As Irwin encourages the inmates to rally up, much like an army platoon, the inmates plot to take control of the prison. What follows is a white-knuckle array of scenes involving inmates firing off a bazooka-like gas canister, catapulting rocks at the castle’s walls, and an incredible sequence with a prisoner commandeering a helicopter and taking out a guard tower with a propeller.

The Last Castle is a remarkably put-together epic studio film that explores the themes of true heroism and pure honor. Irwin and the men may have been reduced to nothing more than petty prisoners, but like he tells them, “They can’t take away who we really are…and we are soldiers!” This is a knockout movie to remember, and truly one of the best films of 2001.

Video ****

Director Lurie applied a unique size and scope for the look of the movie, I think, and the DVD release from the pros of Dreamworks does The Last Castle every ounce of justice in the video transfer. This anamorphic presentation is enormously sharp and crisp to a tee. Most of the movie is shot in outdoor settings in and around the prison area, which show up very nicely too. Indoor scenes inside the prison walls render very nicely as well. A glorious looking movie has been made even more glorious, thanks to what I consider easily to be one of Dreamworks’ best looking discs ever.

Audio ****

I expected the climatic action sequence to pick up extraordinarily well on this disc, and boy…it did, but the entire presentation makes for a grand audio job on behalf of Dreamworks. The 5.1 presentation works in all shape and form, from Jerry Goldsmith’s patriotic musical score, reminiscent of his work on Patton, to numerous background noises, to basically keeping every possible channel alive and sounding great, The Last Castle is also one of the studios’ best sounding discs ever.

Features ***1/2

It doesn’t seem like a lot, but there is enough on this disc to keep one busy and entertained. First off is the HBO First Look Special: Inside the Walls of The Last Castle, an in-depth, 15-minute featurette on the making of the movie. Also included is a feature running commentary by director Rod Lurie, who is a joy to listen to as he goes through everything about the highs and lows of shooting a big budget motion picture. Also, there is a deleted scenes compilation with optional director commentary, and a trailer.  

Summary:

The Last Castle a wonderful drama and a rousing action piece at the same time. It is also a clash of two dynamic acting forces between messers Redford and Gandolfini, and an all around triumph for director Rod Lurie. Perhaps the most underrated film of 2001, as well as one of the best.