Cinema Signal:

Men of the Great Escape

. "The Last Castle"

Certainly not the first warden vs prisoner story, this one breaks new ground (rocks?) by turning it military. The setting is a maximum security army prison led by a maniacal power hungry sadist (what else is new among wardens?) who goes around sporting humor and irony while spouting military conformity. His adversary is up to the engagement, being a 3-star general who landed in his care by virtue of some bad conduct in battle that resulted in the death of a squad under his command. The court martial saw fit to give him 10 years here, harder time than he imagined.

General Irwin (Robert Redford) arrives at the prison amid a buzz of respect for his accomplishments. Many of the prisoners either served under him or their dads did. Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), the warden, is equally excited about his new arrival, anticipating some kind of military validation of his command from the former general. Instead, he gets disrespect which quickly festers into a huge dose of resentment. Inmate Irwin is not going to have an easy ride.

A group of prisoners, all military, mind you, immediately coalesce around Irwin, voicing grievances Irwin wants no part of. But not all the men are part of that group, especially the cynical prison bookie (Mark Ruffalo) who sets up a lottery on when the good general will commit suicide. The betting grows fierce when Colonel Winter decides to punish Irwin by making him carry rocks for hours. But by exhausting all his energies in carrying out the nearly impossible task, surrounded by the entire prison population, he merits their universal respect instead, and we have a leader who, by this time, has some grievances of his own.

The most grievous is the inhumanity of the warden who he thinks has committed one military crime too many in his manipulation of his charges. It becomes a war in which military tactics are employed by a man who wrote the book to best the man who holds the castle with the overpowering weapons and the stronger force. How it's worked out is the fun of the movie. After all, in the words of the tagline, "no castle can have two kings".

But, it does stretch a point or two too many and therein lies the weakness. Not the least of these is creating a rationale for a man of Irwin's caliber and accomplishments to receive so harsh a sentence as to be put into such severe surroundings. That's what had to be done, credible or questionable, to get this matchup going. Just as the warden manipulates his prisoners so the writer is manipulating his audience, like trying to convince us that 1200 convicted men would so unanimously fall into a command structure under the general. It's almost sheepish and far from reality but, you know what? So what. Yes, there are some things that have to be put aside and, once that's done, there's much to enjoy, especially the two lead character actors and strong supporting ones.

It may not have the complexity and depth of "The Shawshank Redemption" but it is an original prison yarn with interesting shades and colors. Gandolfini provides his warden with that Gandolfini patent on adding humor and dimension to his bad guy, no matter how criminally twisted he might be at heart. This natural dimension of the actor makes what might have been a standard role into one worthy of study, one in which his warden uses these talents strategically, disarming his victims through deception and false expectation.

Redford, an actor who can't be accused of overexposing himself in order to keep working, is properly smart, disciplined and contained as he sets out to outfox the keeper of the house by using his own weapons against him. As a natural leader he relishes command, which he puts to good purpose, both morally and dramatically.

Writer David Scarpa cleverly maintains enough plausibility and logic to pull off a delicious dramatic one-upsmanship in military resourcefulness even including some mechanical concepts that have survived from the middle ages. Of course his script doesn't stray for long from complete fantasy but its trappings make it a good entertainment that provides ample opportunity to point out the special meaning of the flag for military men. These days, with the stars and stripes so meaningful to Americans, there's an extra resonance to this theme, whether the filmmakers intended it, or not.

Israeli born director Rod Lurie did a suitable job of putting it all together, though he appears to have lost his suredness with some of the minor characters. Mark Ruffalo and Delroy Lindo seemed, at times, unfocused as though they were left to their own devices to flesh out their characters and reactions. Lurie was more exacting in last year's "The Contender". This is a director with a good eye for tasteful character development and he's worth watching.

Estimated cost: $60,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $19,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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James Gandolfini as the warden of
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An examination of the philosophical
framework underlying military justice