Maybe it's because few of us will ever see the inside of one, that it's some sort of cathartic, "you're there and we're not" release to see where criminals go after being sentenced, or it's simply the built-in dramatic conflict of the situation. Whatever the case, audiences apparently love prison movies, or so filmmakers and studios seem to think as they keep releasing films that fall into that genre.
Of course, given the confines of the setting, the basic organizational structure of the system - and notwithstanding the involved individuals and their personalities and particular stories - there are only so many ways to tell such tales, particularly when they involve prison breaks or uprisings.
A newcomer usually arrives and wants to keep to himself, but various circumstances and the obligatory corrupt warden push the convict into action. Accordingly, he eventually convinces others to join his plan that leads up to the big finale.
Although we've seen that sort of story many times before, that apparently hasn't deterred director Rod Lurie ("The Contender," "Deterrence") from revisiting the genre - albeit with a twist - in "The Last Castle." Working for the first time from someone else's script - in this case that of screenwriters David Scarpa (making his debut) and Graham Yost ("Mission to Mars," "Speed") - the former film critic turned filmmaker has fashioned an old school prison flick that's fairly entertaining as long as one doesn't think about or carefully inspect it too much.
The twist is that the prison is for military convicts and that the latest such inmate isn't some lowly goof-off private, but a former and still highly respected and revered three-star general. Thus, the stage is set when he meets the anal, but iron-fisted colonel-cum-warden who, not surprisingly, isn't the nicest or most ethical guy around. As was the case in many of the film's predecessors, the general doesn't want to get involved, but eventually does, and then proceeds to study and undermine his latest opponent.
While that sounds intriguing and even exciting - and at times it manages to be one or the other - the imperfect hero taking on the corrupt lawman has been seen so many times before - from prison to western to cop movies - that little is unpredictable and most of it feels rather well-worn.
A big problem is that the ensuing battle of wills and intellect between the two opponents isn't as fun or riveting as it might seem and that it far too quickly shifts its tonal qualities from shades of gray to pure black and white. Although the general is drawn as flawed - the reason for his court-martial and subsequent imprisonment being about the only mystery the film has to offer - and the warden's actions are occasionally, if only partially justified - but not to the convincing degree as occurred with Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men" - the characters are too simply drawn as good and bad.
While that allows the viewer to root for the hero and his army - even if that means conveniently forgetting that many of them are convicted criminals of some sort involved in a violent prison uprising - and cheer the villain's eventual comeuppance - both of which occur - the film would have been far more interesting if both characters were drawn further into the gray middle.
Although that would have made it more difficult to pour on the pure rah-rah, defeat the bad guy plot and finale, it would have created a far more complex and engaging plot and characters, where one would never know how things were going to turn out, or who to root for.
Of course, if the characters and related plot were smarter, the filmmakers would have some explaining to do with the various inane, illogical and/or completely unbelievable developments and behavior that occur during the film. Beyond the fact that the general has it far too easy in planning and executing his raid - despite a middle of the film, "let's make him the martyr by moving a pile of rocks back and forth across the prison yard" and a late development - there are various points in the film where viewers are likely to raise an eyebrow and mumble, "Huh?"
Yes, the film is filled with all sorts of moments that just don't make sense, such as a staged fight managing to clear guards out of a cafeteria so that the general can rally his men sans any supervision. Then there's the fact that not until the very end - when the battle seems to be lost - do any guards decide to use real rather than rubber bullets to take care of the uprising that somehow involves the inmates suddenly having all sorts of makeshift weapons - including Molotov cocktails and even a large catapult - that somehow went unnoticed.
No doubt, some viewers won't mind or even notice such problems, but many will find them distracting. It is surprising that Lurie - who was once paid to notice and criticize such problems - would take the easy way out rather than showing the various characters overcoming some nicely conceived and crowd-pleasing obstacles.
What keeps the film interesting - for those who've noticed the problems - is the casting and the performances from the leads. Although he's not always completely convincing as a three-star general (I've met various ones throughout my life in both professional and personal settings and he doesn't quite capture the real essence), Robert Redford ("The Horse Whisperer," "Up Close and Personal"), like his character, easily commands the screen and has what it takes to get the audience rooting for him to succeed.
As his counterpart, James Gandolfini ("The Mexican," HBO's "The Sopranos") is very good and quite convincing despite his character not being drawn as well as it could and should have been. Although he's missing the standout speech or speeches one would expect for a role like this (such as famously occurred with Nicholson in the aforementioned picture), Gandolfini is an imposing presence and brings the correct gravity to the role. It's just too bad the script doesn't give them enough ammunition to really go at it.
Among the supporting performers, Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count on Me," "Safe Men") is decent as the noncommittal prison yard bookie while Steve Burton ("Cybertracker," TV's "General Hospital") is convincing as Winter's right-hand man. Brian Goodman ("Blow," "Monument Ave.") is the same as an imposing inmate, Clifton Collins, Jr. ("Traffic," "Tigerland") plays the token misfit taken under the general's wing, and Delroy Lindo ("The Heist," "Gone in 60 Seconds") has some fun playing another general in an extended cameo.
A bit heavy on its titular symbolism - the men use metal cafeteria trays as shields, shoot fire into the towers and use a catapult, of all things, to pound the castle - and feeling a bit slow due its lack of imaginative or unpredictable moments, the film has its share of problems, but nevertheless manages to be an okay example of turn off your brain entertainment. With enough crowd-pleasing, kick-butt moments, the film should find a decent audience theatrically and once on video, but could have been so much more of an interesting and engaging film with just a little bit of work.
Decent, but not as good as it could have been, "The Last Castle" probably works better than it should simply due its patriotic theme and "heroic" military action that's particularly welcomed in this day and age. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.