Robert Redford stars as a legendary U.S. Army general court-martialed for disobeying a Presidential order to break off from capturing a genocidal warlord in Burundi. Rather like Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke," the new prisoner's natural charisma, courage, and willpower inevitably put him in conflict with the cruel but weak prison warden, portrayed brilliantly by James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos").
Just as Alec Guinness bolstered the morale of his POW's by inspiring them to build the bridge over the River Kwai, the noble Redford reminds the inmates that once they were soldiers by organizing them to build a wall in the prison yard from the stones of the original 19th Century prison.
When Gandolfini sends in a bulldozer to knock down this symbol of the prisoners' reborn martial pride, one outraged convict bravely plants himself like that Tiananmen Square dissident in front of the machine.
Gandolfini orders his marksman to fire a rubber bullet at the resister's head, killing him.
To prove to the Army brass that Gandolfini is unfit for command, Redford swears to temporarily seize control from him of the prison (known as "The Castle"). Having united the racially divided rabble into a disciplined and proud army, Redford launches a rebellion almost as technically elaborate as the true-life plot in "The Great Escape." (Unlike the Steve McQueen film, though, this one skimps on explaining such minor details as how the prisoners managed to assemble a medieval siege catapult under the guards' noses.)
"The Last Castle" is too contrived to be in the same league as those three films. Also, most women probably won't be enthralled by a picture where men have about 97 percent of the lines.
Still, the movie plucks at the old heartstrings in the manner of "The Shawshank Redemption."
For guys who love Guy Movies, "The Last Castle" delivers a fairly effective blend of heroic sentiment salted with just enough sardonic humor.
For example, at the memorial service for the murdered inmate, a former Marine, the assembled felons spontaneously break into the "Marines' Hymn." Just when you are getting embarrassed at sniffling over such a schmaltzy scene, the men discover that nobody knows the words to the second verse. (Do you?) So, after some confusion, they simply hum it loudly.
Yet, despite all the Hollywood hokum, the film contains a fascinating core of harsh truth in Gandolfini's pudgy, bespectacled, and wheezing desk warrior. No matter how many times this Army intellectual reads Redford's classic "The Burden of Command," he'll never be a leader.
Director Rob Lurie ("The Contender") was a 1984 U.S. Military Academy graduate. The ex-lieutenant says, "The movie presents what I believe is a very simple concept: that leadership is innate. At West Point, I learned that leadership cannot be taught. In fact, contrary to what you might think, they don't make leaders at the Academy, they find them."
This isn't what Americans generally like to hear. Countless movies pander to our creed that "If you just put your mind to it, you can be anything you imagine."
Realists, however, will appreciate how Lurie used casting to drive home his point. Gandolfini puts on an acting showcase in a role that's the opposite of his Tony Soprano. Still, a few hundred actors could have played it almost as well. The movie business today is blessed with more highly skilled actors than ever before.
Redford, in contrast, doesn't seem to do much acting. He's just Mr. Crinkly-Eyed Casual, same as always. But then he doesn't have to do much. He's Robert Redford.
Only a dozen or so other screen legends could have gotten the audience to agree, "Of course these violent thugs will shape up and follow the general. Who wouldn't?"
The cruel fact is that looks matter, in war as well as in movies. At a scientific conference in Moscow last summer, an evolutionary psychologist showed us two pictures from the West Point yearbook of 1950. One was of a cadet with a genial but weak-chinned faced, the other of a formidable-looking cadet with a jaw like Redford's. She then asked, "Which one rose to the rank of general?" We all voted for Mr. Dominant Jawline, which was of course correct.
In fact, a Syracuse demographer named Allan Mazur has demonstrated that the public can predict with some degree of accuracy who will make general just from whose Academy yearbook photo looks most forceful.
People seem to view Redford's rugged jaw as a sign of a high testosterone level and his symmetrical features as evidence of good health. And, superficial as it may seem, that's the kind of man other men are naturally inclined to follow into battle. Or to pay $9 to see on screen.