In "The Last Castle," Robert Redford sometimes seems to have wandered over from some educational-TV program. In scene after scene, he makes speeches about flags, or prison history, or leadership, or castles; it's all very noble and inspiring, but doesn't really disguise the fact that he's not actually doing anything. Redford's become such an icon that all he has to do is show up, recite lines in that laconic, all-American voice, and let the sunlight glint off his hair; no emoting seems necessary. "He's become John Wayne," said my companion.
Director Rod Lurie showed in last year's "The Contender" (which he also wrote) that he knows how to pace a movie to build tension; but what he didn't demonstrate was any real feel for story and character. With "The Last Castle," he's working with screenwriters (David Scarpa and Graham Yost), but the same weaknesses remain. This time it's Redford, rather than Joan Allen, who has to be impossibly noble, and the virtues piled upon Irwin strain plausibility.
In addition to his brilliant military career, Irwin possesses astonishing physical stamina (I winced when the 60-something Redford got clubbed by prison guards, but he was on his feet instantly, like Batman), he's got a magical touch that causes feuding prisoners to lay aside differences and work together, and he's even a great chess player. A brief scene in which Irwin's visiting daughter tells him that he wasn't a perfect father feels tossed in, more to put an attractive woman into the movie than for dramatic reasons.
Meanwhile, since Redford gets to be the good guy, Gandolfini has to be the bad guy, and sadly this fine actor disintegrates into a series of hangdog glowers and discouraged slouches. It's not his fault; the screenplay's simply lead-footed, and we know from the start that his character can't compete against Irwin. (For example, Winter listens to Salieri in his office. We don't get to hear what kind of music Irwin likes, but I suspect it would be Mozart.)
Speaking of fine actors, Mark Ruffalo brings his boyish, slurry-voiced honesty to a small role; Delroy Lindo is impressive but barely on screen in an even smaller one.
By the end, it's all flag-waving melodrama and a great deal of talk about what makes a leader. "The Last Castle," while engrossing in parts, might have benefited from more pre-shooting talk about what makes an intriguing character — and what makes a star performance.
Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.