Just because all inmates of the military prison known as the Castle are disgraced former soldiers, don't believe they don't still have the stuff of heroes in them.
Just because these men have committed the worst kinds of crimes, don't think they can't be as self-sacrificing as the Little Sisters of the Poor.
And just because "The Last Castle" obviously aspires to deal with higher things like honor, character and leadership, don't imagine it's anything other than a phlegmatic programmer that takes itself more seriously than it should.
Despite stars on the order of Robert Redford and James Gandolfini, "The Last Castle" can't rise above the tired mire of its David Scarpa and Graham Yost script or Rod Lurie's obvious direction. It's not objectionable (which is saying something these days) but neither does it have any compelling reason to be seen.
Lurie, a West Point graduate whose last film was the more visceral "The Contender," likes to wave the flag, both physically and metaphorically. He gets lots of opportunities to do both in a film that is more pro-military than its setting might lead you to believe.
That story was apparently inspired by "Patton," by the notion that having a powerful and charismatic general inside a military prison might make for interesting drama. It might, but don't expect it here. For one thing, though Redford certainly has the aura to play a legendary figure, his acting style is more serene and laid-back than George C. Scott's. So his General Irwin is more guru than gung-ho, someone likelier to raise a soldier's self-esteem with a quiet chat than slap him hard for malingering.
As his three stars testify, though, the man is a legend. He's the author of "The Burden of Command" (surely you've read it) and an inspiration to his men (he wouldn't leave his Vietnamese prison without them). "They should be naming a base after the man," says Colonel Winter (Gandolfini), "instead of sending him here."
"Here" is the military prison Colonel Winter runs with a very tight hand, a place General Irwin is scheduled to spend 10 years in for disobeying a presidential order and leading an action that cost the lives of several men.
The colonel is delighted at first with his distinguished new prisoner, but when he overhears the general disparaging his military memorabilia ("Any man with a collection like this has never set foot on a battlefield") you know there's going to be trouble in River City.
For his part, all the general wants to do is serve his time and spend his declining years with the grandson he's never seen. (The burden of command apparently does not include being a family man.) But his fellow prisoners keep telling Irwin what an out-of-control martinet and disciplinarian the colonel is, and we know it must be true: The man actually listens to classical music during office hours, the movies' infallible sign of a secret sadist.
But because "The Last Castle's" pretensions lead to a slow, even stately pace, what should be crackling confrontations between these two end up playing more like a tea party than a Wagnerian battle of wills.
Not helping any is Gandolfini's artificial, overly fussy take on his role, a rare misstep for an invariably reliable actor. Many of the characterizations in "Castle," including Yates (Mark Ruffalo from "You Can Count on Me"), the amoral prison bookie, have the feeling of actors working things out on their own without much help from anyone.
What "Castle" is good at, unfortunately, is milking standard situations. Is it really necessary for Gandolfini's chilly Colonel to be called Winter, to see an actual chess game to remind us that a mental duel is going on between the protagonists, to have someone literally singing the blues in his cell? This is a film that thinks it is.
"The Last Castle's" pace picks up considerably during its brisk closing action sequences when all heck breaks lose in the prison (Kevin Stitt, who worked on "Breakdown," "Deep Blue Sea" and "Lethal Weapon 4," edited along with Michael Jablow), but it is a little late to get excited. Calling it quits may not be in General Irwin's lexicon, but this film has given up well before he does.
MPAA rating: R, for language and violence. Times guidelines: not excessive by the standards of the genre.
'The Last Castle'
Robert Redford: General Irwin
James Gandolfini: Colonel Winter
Mark Ruffalo: Yates
Clifton Collins, Jr.: Aguillar
Steve Burton: Captain Perez
Delroy Lindo: General Wheeler
A Robert Lawrence Productions, Inc. production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Rod Lurie. Producer Robert Lawrence. Executive producer Don Zepfel. Screenplay David Scarpa and Graham Yost. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson. Editor Michael Jablow, Kevin Stitt. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Kirk M. Petruccelli. Art director Lawrence A. Hubbs. Set decorators Daniel L. May, Eloise C. Stammerjohn. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
In general release.