Of all the star survivors of '70s cinema, Robert Redford: Actor has endured an unrivalled run of duffs - a rollerCostner, if you like. Fact is, you have to go back to 1984 and The Natural for his last great movie. Since then, it's been two decades of smug showboating and stupid crap like Legal Eagles.
Put part of the blame on Redford's masochistic narcissism. Not wishing to sound too cruel here, but the reason he's described as the thinking woman's crumpet is that he increasingly resembles one, an actor so leathery he even turns the bath water brown. And surely the most indecent proposal in Indecent Proposal was asking the audience to swallow Redford playing a sugar-daddy shag-machine.
In The Last Castle, he still manages to bag a blatantly ain't-he-buff moment (the punishment calls for his character to transport a wall, brick by-brick, in the blazing sun; the result is a "Me Tarzan" torso strip, a kind of Diet Coke break for the Cuppa Soup set). Still playing the Housewives' Choice, then. But otherwise, this is definitely one for the boys.
Finally playing his vintage to his advantage, Redford is General Eugene Irwin, a disgraced US army legend stripped of rank and banged up in a military slammer for a seriously botched mission. James Gandolfini's intimidated but toadying warden licks his boots at first, but his hostile, draconian methods (all riot shields and rubber bullets) urge the General towards leading one last charge: an intricately plotted inmate revolution designed to oust the warden.
With two big names playing power games, it's the kind of set-up that smacks of hammery and histrionics. In actual fact, it's almost like seeing who can underact each other off the screen. Channelling his inner rage through his nose like some adenoidal Darth Vader, a subtle, surprisingly sympathetic Gandolfini is all nasal hiss and ready-to-pop fury. As for Redford, the trademark smooth veneer that in the past has invited criticisms of inert acting works in his favour. The movie hinges on trying to second-guess the General's next move, and Redford keeps his motivations coiled. The looks might have shrivelled, the star presence certainly hasn't. He simmers but never boils dry - much like the film itself.
As with The Contender, director Rod Lurie's fondness for emotive film scores over-eggs the melodrama, but you can't question his craft: for better or worse, this is a film that takes its clichés seriously. The prison movie dynamics may be familiar, the scenario less so. With the army felons favouring rebellion over escape, it's won't-budge rather than break-out and, despite a dip in momentum, the explosive climax corkscrews in some thunking twists. A sturdy supporting ensemble adds texture, but the wallop comes from watching Redford and Gandolfini locking horns. A classic it ain't, but the impact resonates.