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Having just seen Le Trou, a French prison break movie released recently on the Criterion label, I can say The Last Castle is far too formulaic to pass for art. Castle is entertaining enough, but 41 years from now you’ll be more likely to find it at the bottom of a discount bin than on a specially-restored DVD.

General Redford

Redford plays a deadly game of Capture The FlagRobert Redford plays a 3-star general who’s been sentenced to 10 years in a military prison for disobeying an order. The warden of the prison is James Gandolfini, a colonel who greatly admires the general, and can’t believe the general is serving time. “They should be naming a base after him, not sending him here,” he remarks.

In contrast to the other prisoners, General Irwin (Redford) is very mature. He’s old. He’s at the end of his career. In fact, he’s past retirement age, but decided to stay on awhile longer. Unlike the other inmates, Irwin admits his guilt and is willing to serve his time. He is not bitter or frustrated; he is stoic.

Some of the other inmates approach General Irwin, hoping he will use his pull in the Pentagon to get Colonel Winter (Gandolfini) out. They tell the general he’s a mean bastard who is unfit to command. He needs to be removed.

Redford’s look of bemused indifference is one of The Last Castle’s many charms. The warden at a military prison is a little rough sometimes? Who’d have guessed?

Redford’s performance, in this scene and throughout the film, is impressive. His face is creased like a map, but he still has the body and the presence of a movie star. He is riveting every time he’s on screen, and he raises The Last Castle to the next level above mediocrity.

The Castle Wall

The Castle isn’t just a nickname for this military prison, it’s also a pet project for the inmates. Colonel Winter has building materials brought in so the prisoners can build a stone wall in the yard — the wall itself serves no purpose, but building it is something to do and it’s constructive (calling to mind The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Before Irwin arrives, there is much infighting among the prisoners. But his presence unites the men. Over time, their own little stone “castle” wall becomes the focal point for their coming together. They build not only a wall but a sense of cohesion and family.

A charismatic leader and a token labor project isn’t quite enough to truly galvanize the men. The final factor that brings them all together is the menace of their common enemy, Colonel Winter. Winter has been known to command his marksmen to aim their rubber bullets at the base of the target’s skull — the one place where a rubber bullet kills. General Irwin eventually sees that the prisoners were right — Winter truly is unfit to command this prison.

To make their lives more bearable, the prisoners, led by General Irwin, hatch a plan.

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

The last part of the movie consists of the prisoners coming up with the perfect plan, then trying to execute it without a hitch. The plan is simple, yet sound, and enough details are withheld to keep you in suspense. The execution of the plan is a wonderful, tense 20 minutes of filmmaking.

And although you’ve seen this formula many times before — The Great Escape, Entrapment, The Great Train Robbery — it does make for good entertainment. The Castle sticks to the formula, and it too is good entertainment.

If there is anything wrong with The Last Castle, it is that it sticks too closely to formula. After Rod Lurie’s last effort, The Contender, which only missed greatness by a too-conventional ending, I would have hoped for more than just good entertainment. I would have hoped for more intricacy of character and plot.

Ruffalo Stance

Aside from Gandolfini’s colonel and Redford’s general, the only other character that stands out is Mark Ruffalo’s. Reprising his directionless drifter performance from You Can Count On Me, Ruffalo plays an army brat who never should have enlisted in the first place. Yates (Ruffalo) doesn’t gamble, but he takes book on just about anything — yard fights, the weather, or how long before the new guy offs himself. As a bookie, he must remain neutral and without loyalty.

Ruffalo was wonderful in You Can Count On Me, the brother-sister drama where he introduced his charming, uncertain-yet-sincere, screen persona to the world. When the general makes one of his too-many speeches to Yates, Ruffalo characteristically laughs nervously and looks away. He’s almost repulsively neurotic, but his modest charm is enough to win you over.

The Last Castle may not be the best movie you’ll see this week. Especially if you go rent Le Trou on DVD. But it’s good entertainment with good charismatic performances. If that’s all you ask of your movies, then The Last Castle will fit the bill.