There’s an uninflected moment early in The Last Castle that crystallizes everything that is best about it. Robert Redford, playing a three-star general stripped of rank and jailed on a 10-year sentence, stands to one side of the military-prison yard, calmly watching a brawl with his hands folded behind his back. Just that: He neither flinches nor gets emotionally involved in the near-riot; he merely observes, alert and unhurried. Someone is watching him, too, and he knows it. The prison’s warden, Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), stands in his office overlooking the yard, helplessly fascinated by Redford’s General Irwin. Seen from above, standing apart with his hands behind him, Irwin looks like an eagle standing watch over the Earth.

This sense of animal recognition — call it natural leadership, call it star power, call it congruent with every feeling Redford reliably provokes in moviegoers — is so well used by director Rod Lurie, and wrings such rich reactions out of Gandolfini (who does one of the best slow burns this side of Oliver Hardy), that the otherwise hokey battle of wills they inhabit is lifted to a highly pleasurable, chess-master level. Trouble is, the screenplay by David Scarpa and Graham Yost lacks the contradictory intelligence of the scripts Lurie writes for himself. Where Deterrence (1999) and The Contender (2000) were at their best when you didn’t know whom to root for, here we’re indivisibly on the side of the angels.

Irwin, a nationally admired former Vietnam POW, has pleaded guilty to disobeying a direct presidential order in an action that needlessly cost eight lives. “I was wrong,” he says simply: He’s that kind of tough guy. Even Colonel Winter is in awe of him: “They should be naming a base after this man, not sending him to me,” he laments. But hero worship turns to poison when Irwin, who’s dangerously honest-bound, injures Winter’s pride by belittling his fetishy collection of battlefield memorabilia. Later, after witnessing one of the covert murders by which Winter governs his prison, Irwin demands his resignation, and the two become mortal enemies.

The Last Castle zooms with an unpretentious velocity. It’s also uncannily relevant after this past September 11: Irwin fights Winter by rebuilding the shattered pride of his fellow inmates, coaxing them to remember their original natures as soldiers and patriots before leading them to take over the prison. Yet given what Lurie is capable of, one wishes he had worked the characters harder. Despite a first-rate performance by Clifton Collins Jr. in the lovable-guy-who’s-doomed role, there is almost never any hint of criminal backsliding, or even instability, in the men Irwin converts to the cause of Good. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, Irwin has a divine aura that silences the beasts on all sides, and this leaves the surly delinquent-in-need-of-a-father-figure played by Mark Ruffalo no room to move thematically; we know too well in advance how he’s going to turn out.

Yet Lurie manages, despite these obstacles, to inspire Redford to give one of the most layered and interesting performances of his career. Few film actors listen, or look on in wonder, with the contagious power Redford can. Lurie shapes this force into a specific character, down to the impeccably correct military body language. At moments, Redford seems a walking essay on the very essence of leadership. One can only wish the world around him were realized with as much depth.

THE LAST CASTLE | Directed by ROD LURIE | Written by DAVID SCARPA and GRAHAM YOST from a story by SCARPA | Produced by ROBERT LAWRENCE | Released by DreamWorks | Citywide

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