Dir Rod Lurie. US 2001. 130 mins.

The big mystery of prison action film The Last Castle is not how Robert Redford was cast in the lead - he received $11 million, his highest pay cheque to date - but how director Rod Lurie got such low-key and unimpressive performances from a stellar cast that includes, in addition to Redford, The Sopranos's James Gandolfini and You Can Count On Me's Mark Ruffalo. The film boasts an allegedly "original screenplay," by David Scarpa and Graham Yost (of Band Of Brothers' fame), but it is actually a pastiche of old war and prison films, such as Stalag 17, The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Great Escape, and even Patton, whose controversial hero must have inspired the film. As a follow-up to Lurie's debut, the political thriller Deterrence - a failure on any level - and the well-acted The Contender - which was a box-office disappointment - this third effort benefits from a bigger budget and high-profile ensemble. It should become Lurie's breakout film commercially, despite the mixed-to-negative reviews it is likely to receive due to its pedestrian nature.

What should have been a enjoyable formulaic picture, a throwback to Hollywood's surefire melodramas of men's life within prison, turns out to be a tedious film that drags, structured as a psychological character study, a battle of wills between two strong personalities: a high-ranking officer, who has fallen from grace and sent to prison; and the jail's warden, a rigidly bookish type who has never fought in combat.

Lurie stages an impressive introduction - grand entree - for General Irwin (Redford) who, very much in the manner John Wayne used to be introduced in his Westerns, is first talked about by the other prisoners in legendary terms. Court-martialled and stripped of his rank, Irwin has been sentenced to the maximum security military prison, the last castle, which is run with an iron fist by Colonel Winter (Gandolfini)

At first, being a loyal officer, Winter can't help but respect the mythic Irwin. However, gradually, the respect turns into envy, resentment, and overt hostility, when Irwin confronts the warden for his brutal methods. Setting out to break Irwin with whatever means necessary - and the means get more and more desperate - the colonel's tactics not only fuel Irwin's defiance, but galvanise the other prisoners to rally behind him.

Since the goal, seizing control of the prison, and its outcome, removing Winter from command, are anticipated from the first frame, all that's left for the viewers to do is wait and see how and when the actual war will begin. As this is an old-fashioned melodrama, it inevitably contains an intergenerational, father-son conflict, here represented in the character of Clifford Yates (Ruffalo), the jail's bookie, who takes every opportunity to run a game, taking bets on when the disgraced General will break down or commit suicide. A reworking of the cynical character William Holden played in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, Yates is an army brat whose father had come home from Vietnam damaged, failing to fulfil his duties as a father. Although Yates attended West Point and became an officer, he never had respect for the military or for his position; in fact, he got busted for running drugs.

Needless to say, Irwin has served with Yates' father in Vietnam, and it is now his job to restore the honour of the old man and become in the process the youngster's surrogate father. At first, as the clash between Irwin and Winter escalates, Yates appears to be playing both ends against the middle, but it is only a matter of time before he switches allegiance and sacrifice himself for the "right" cause.

The film gets a considerable mileage out of the military salute, pondering over and over again the question of who should salute whom, some of which is quite humorous. But the whole screenplay seems to have been constructed as a balancing act between right and wrong, past and present, respect and contempt for military rank. Since this is basically a bunch of criminals, each prisoner is given a past that's bad but not too bad, so that he can redeem himself and demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit, which is the film's main point.

In the tradition of prison melodramas, The Last Castle is very much a men's world. To enrich the yarn (which doesn't work) and humanise Irwin, the writers throw in a subplot that depicts him as an errant father, now aiming to make up for years of neglecting his daughter (played by the uncredited Robin Penn Wright) and his grandson, whose photo he keeps in his cell.

A slender narrative expanded to an overlong picture, The Last Castle also suffers from pretentiousness, enveloping its story with an earnest, high-schoolish gravity that befits a social studies lecture. The film's central ideas - the nature of true leadership and whether or not leadership is innate or trained - get a skin-deep treatment and, what's worse, manage to both mystify and glamorise the notion of heroism.

Rather disappointingly, director Lurie doesn't gain much from his education at the West Point Military Academy and subsequent military experience, for The Last Castle registers as a movieish product, composed of bits and pieces of old cloth, put together in a package that's meant to look fresh but deep down betrays its nature as a star vehicle.

Even a hack director would have realised that the "cat and mouse" yarn is slight and familiar, and would have jazzed up the film, giving it a faster tempo and a more stylish look. It's in these departments that Lurie's deficiencies as a director are at their most obvious. Since he lacks technical knowledge of how to build and sustain physical or emotional tension, the periodic encounters between the two men become increasingly tedious and redundant. Lurie's tiresome device is to show every gesture of Irwin through reaction shots of Winter, standing proud at his ivory tower, literally looking down at his inmates, who he treats as animals.

As for Redford's star acting: at 64, he looks good, but his role is necessarily less colourful than Gandolfini's, which does him disservice. Throughout his career, Redford has mastered the art of internalising emotions to the point of often seeming detached and inexpressive. With his glamorous look and emotional remoteness, Redford has built his romantic appeal on the charisma of a classic matinee idol and the ironic detachment of a modern hero.

There were always sides to Redford - raw energy, wild humour, buried fury - that remained unexplored and untapped, as if he were hiding behind a mask. In The Last Castle, he is as hidden and restrained as ever, which should not be surprising, because even when he played scoundrels (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Sneakers), he was passive and self-contained. Here too, Redford is holding back too much, almost refusing to let the audience like his character, which represents a logical continuity to his specialty: American Protestant princes whose wings have been clipped. Time and again, through cuts and reaction shots, Redford is seen clenching his strong, photogenic jaw to hold in his anger.

As a screen personality, Redford has split himself in two, pursuing a strategy of starring in glossy studio films (Up Close And Personal, The Horse Whisperer), while directing edgier and smaller studio features (Ordinary People, Quiz Show). It's too bad Redford himself didn't direct The Last Castle, a picture which falls in between these extremes.