Worth A Look: 24.56%
Pretty Bad: 36.84%
Total Crap: 5.26%
5 reviews, 27 user ratings
|Last Castle, The
by Andrew Howe
If I was pitching The Last Castle to the man who writes the cheques, this is what I would say: “A US General is sent down for ten years after an error in judgement, and finds himself butting heads with the megalomaniacal warden of a military prison. Over time he earns the respect of his fellow inmates, and hatches an action-packed plan to teach the warden a thing or two about military tactics. It’s got it all – drama, pathos, male bonding and violence, so pony up a couple of million and we’ll start the ball rolling.”And so it came to pass that a screenwriter we’ve never heard of and another who lists Mission to Mars and Broken Arrow on his resume were entrusted with this intriguing concept. What they did with it practically defies description – The Last Castle is a career-ending missive from two seriously disturbed individuals, but it’s so utterly uncommercial that you have to admire the unshakeable self-confidence that enabled them to deliver the finished product with a straight face.
"So outlandish it's almost surreal"
Lest anyone accuse me of exaggerating for effect, I have every intention of backing up that statement with a spoiler-ridden expose of the film’s crimes against common sense. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want several key plot points ruined, come back after you’ve checked it out and add your derision to my own.
For everyone who’s still with me, I can reveal that the plot does indeed concern the disgraced General Irwin (Robert Redford), a living legend who finds himself on the wrong side of Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), a warden whose sole exposure to armed conflict consists of a lovingly maintained collection of war relics. Over time it becomes apparent that Winter has a few screws loose, and his anger at being perceived as a desk jockey manifests itself in his willingness to engineer the demise of any prisoner who gets under his skin. Irwin hatches a plot to destroy the Colonel’s credibility by taking over the prison, which opens the way for an extended riot sequence that winds its way to a suitably arresting conclusion.
The trouble with using a prison as the setting for your film is that, for the most part, nothing much ever happens within those four high walls. When Ellis Redding said that “Prison life consists of routine, and then more routine” he wasn’t joking – the inmates eat, sleep, exercise and sit around counting the wasted years, which isn’t exactly riveting entertainment. Prison films therefore fall into two categories: they either present us with an absorbing, character-driven narrative about life in the slammer that culminates in an escape plot (The Shawshank Redemption, The Great Escape), or offer up a mindless ode to brutality and machismo that culminates in an escape plot (Lock Up, Fortress).
The Last Castle obviously aspires to the former, but shallow characters hamstring its efforts. With the exception of Colonel Winter, who Gandolfini invests with a vibrancy that belies his status as a cardboard villain, the major players are a motley bunch who are incapable of enlisting the viewer’s support, which is critical for a film in which the survival of any given character is meant to be a cause for concern.
In the right hands, General Irwin could have carried the film – wracked by guilt and stripped of his honour after an exemplary career, he’s an invitation for the scriptwriters to examine the effect of incarceration on a proud and noble individual. Unfortunately, we’re afforded little insight into his psyche, and the scraps we’re thrown feature nothing better than the likes of a daughter he never had time for and dialogue which hammers home his exposure to the horrors of war with a sledgehammer. He also takes the loss of everything he held dear in his stride, and steel-plated heroes are rarely as interesting as flawed but identifiably human individuals (see Cool Hand Luke for an example of how to script your jailbird protagonist).
The right actor might have salvaged something from the role, but Redford is not that man. Why he emerged from semi-retirement for this film is anybody’s guess, but the fact remains that age has robbed him of his once legendary good looks and charisma (which is why it’s never a good idea to base your career on those attributes – I doubt that Ray Liotta’s marketability will suffer from the ravages of the years). He simply doesn’t have the presence required to carry the role, a situation telegraphed by his inability to invest the appallingly trite opening voiceover with the required gravity (in Morgan Freeman’s hands it would have still been a stupid speech, but it wouldn’t have been so obvious).
However, it’s when we turn our attention to the supporting players that things really take a nosedive. None of the characters are possessed of the slightest depth, and most of them are vaguely distasteful to boot. There’s a couple of bullies, a self-serving scumbag and several tiers of faceless non-entities, but the highest honour goes to Corporal Aguilar (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a depressingly stupid individual whose premature demise is evidently meant to turn us against Colonel Winter. Unfortunately, given the ill-conceived nature of both the character and Collins, Jr.’s performance I was obscenely pleased when he copped a rubber bullet to the skull, since it meant that I didn’t have to endure his mangled vocal delivery and wounded-puppy expression for the rest of the film (memo to the scriptwriters: low IQ individuals who murder their comrades in cold blood and are incapable of stringing a couple of sentences together are not suitable candidates for martyrdom).
I have no idea what was going through the minds of the screenwriters when they scripted the heavy handed dialogue for their uninspiring creations, but I imagine they were thinking along the lines of “One bad deed does not define the man”, “Heroism can be found in the unlikeliest places”, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”, “The burden of command is a great weight indeed” and other pithy calendar-quote favourites. All of which are worth examining, but none of which deserve to be reduced to cliché’s or communicated via portentous homilies.
However, I promised you an action-packed riot sequence, and many a film has been saved by a seat-shaking dose of high-octane fireworks. Unless, that is, you choose to spend ninety minutes creating a passable imitation of a drama, then serve up the popcorn in a king-sized bucket.
Here’s the deal: Irwin views the prison as a castle, a concept hammered home by that ridiculous opening voiceover and the fact that many of the prisoners spend their time noodling around with the remnants of a building demolished to make way for the current facility. Oblivious to the symbolism of his deed, Irwin helps his men regain their self-esteem by badgering them into constructing a good, solid wall in the middle of the exercise yard (now there’s a concept for the next Anthony Robbins seminar). After Winter huffs and puffs and knocks it down with a front end loader, an unimpressed Irwin hatches his plan to take over the prison.
However, he is so immersed in his warped fantasy that he decides the inmates must conduct their assault in the manner of a medieval siege. This is the kind of thing that seasoned scriptwriters joke about over their seventh glass of cheap bourbon, but David Scarpa and Graham Yost go one better by bringing their surreal vision to technicolour life. So it is that we witness such outlandish events as a mob of prisoners using their dinner trays as shields (it’s actually a reasonable idea, but one which provokes gales of laughter instead of studious admiration for their inventiveness), a grappling hook powered by a water cannon and, for an encore, a fully functional trebuchet that would have given Richard the Lionheart pause for thought.
Look, it’s like this: when you check out the latest Schwarzenegger actioner, you fully expect to be confronted with highly improbable occurrences which could only occur in an alternate universe in which the laws of physics, probability and common sense no longer apply. However, The Last Castle was not marketed as this kind of film, since a single viewing of the poster and trailer give the impression that you’re in for a gritty, realistic drama. As such it does not behove us to ignore the climax’s more outlandish conceits, since they do not sit well with the relatively serious events which precede it.
If you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else there’s a few things I’d like you to try at home:
(a) construct a hand-mounted catapult out of thick elastic bands, drop a flaming Molotov cocktail into the receptacle, and try to hit the side of a barn from ten paces. Now try to hit a guard tower while a hundred guys run screaming around you and rubber bullets whistle past your ear.
(b) spend a sizeable proportion of your youth being trained as one of the best marksmen in the business, lock and load a rifle with rubber bullets, take the high ground, and see how long it takes you to pick off those hundred screaming guys I was talking about (shielded by dinner trays or no).
(c) while away three years at university learning how to construct office buildings, bridges and siege weaponry. Build a collapsible trebuchet under the noses of the guards, using only the materials available in your average prison workshop. Train your crew to use it during exercise breaks, then fling a rock through the warden’s window. Oh, and make sure it lands on his display case.
(d) suppress your individuality through a couple of years of hard military training, then refuse a direct order from your superior to take out a prisoner because you liked his book and he’s carrying an American flag.
I could go on, but you get the idea. You could get away with this kind of thing in a popcorn flick, or a film like Escape From Alcatraz which goes to great pains to explain how the inmates pulled off their daring plan, but you can’t switch teams two-thirds of the way through and expect nobody to notice.
Even that isn’t the end of it – I haven’t mentioned a downright embarrassing scene where the inmates belt out The Marines Hymn to send the warden the message that he can remove their uniforms, but he can’t remove their pride at having been part of the finest fighting force the world has ever seen; a petulant hair-combing salute devised by everyone’s favourite drongo and taken up by the inmates at large, who evidently have no idea how ridiculous it looks; and a character named Doc who is the only likable dude in the entire film and is therefore allocated approximately three minutes of screen time. It’s a jaw-dropping, bone-crunching mess of a film, the product of one too many mind-altering substances (or possibly one too little), and the failure of several layers of quality control to arrest its progress provides ample proof that craziness may be contagious after all.The inmates have taken over the asylum, but if you want to get them back to their cells you’ll have to turn around and check out the guys standing behind the cameras. Unless you’re a fan of surrealism, this is one self-portrait you’d be advised to avoid.
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originally posted: 11/21/01 17:58:35