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Robert Redford waves the flag

Well, before I tell you what I thought of “The Last Castle,” featuring Robert Redford and James Gandolfini, which opened yesterday nationwide, let me tell you about the reaction of a fairly large preview audience last night in Washington, D.C.

It was like being a kid again at a Saturday afternoon movie. They cheered. They roared with laughter. They applauded.

And did they ever applaud and cheer as our flag rippled proud in the breeze across the screen at the end.

Redford certainly couldn’t even in his wildest moments ever have imagined how the events that occurred Sept. 11 would change the temper of the country. Will “The Last Castle” knock “Training Day” with Denzel Washington as a bent charismatic L.A. cop from the number one spot of the 10 top movies of the week? To be seen.

The story is simple. Very simple. James Gandolfini plays the colonel in charge of a military prison. Gandolfini of Tony Soprano fame is a dazzling actor. He even stole the rather weak movie “The Mexican” from the likes of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt as a gay hit man. But here, as the big meanie of a control freak, Gandolfini gives the weakest performance of his career. It’s as if somehow he felt intimidated by starring opposite megastar Robert Redford. After all, Gandolfini has proved many a season on HBO every shade and nuance of violence, sly concealed rage and utter ruthlessness to perfection.

Here he plays a slightly testy pussycat of a villain. At a crucial moment in the film, when he says to Redford, a three star general with 10 years to serve, “Now give me back my flag,” he sounds like nothing so much as a little boy on the playground asking for his marbles back.

Our star, Mr. Redford, a three-star general court-martialed and sentenced to a decade in the slammer for a crime we only learn about nearly three-quarters of the way through the film, plays the most upright, noble, decent honorable sort of man you could want to find anywhere. His military career combines elements of John McCain, General Schwarzkopf and Wesley Clarke. Where hasn’t he fought? He is an idol to all the other prisoners, and was to Colonel Winter as well when he arrived.

The colonel asked him quite humbly and courteously if he’d be willing to sign a book the general had written. “I’d be honored,” replies Redford, and while Gandolfini is off to locate the book, Redford looks over some exhibit cases of sundry military weapons, and remarks to the young captain watching over him that he has no use for collections of military relics, “They’re only kept by men who’ve never been on a battlefield and seen action.” Naturally Gandolfini overhears this rather injudicious – or provocative – remark, and every thing is off on the wrong foot.

Naturally, the enmity between the two begins to escalate. Redford is punished for some infraction by having to lug 25-pound rocks from one spot to another under a hot sun. All the other men stand by, placing bets on whether he can make it or not, and commenting admiringly on the brutal scars he bears on his back from his years in the Hanoi Hilton.

Let it be said, if Redford is a tad past the time for playing romantic heroes, he sure is keeping himself in excellent physical shape. He can match his six packs against those of any 20-year-old anywhere around. Not that that makes him any better an actor, but still impressive.

Where the audience started going wild was when Redford decides he can’t take the rough treatment of the other prisoners any more. He has been using the castle in chess as a metaphor from the outset of the film and with the help of the men, devoted now to him, take over the “castle” from Colonel Winter who looks down upon the disaster happening before his very eyes.

Flaming catapults, improvised metal shields, taking over a helicopter. General Redford directs the battle, even once allowing himself to laugh delightedly as one of their attack gimmicks works to perfection. And the audience noisily shares in his delight.

The general, you understand, is doing all this to give the men back their self-respect – a lesson he learned in Hanoi. The men are as one with their general, and it’s all quite thrilling to behold, but you do have to wonder if men doing time for crimes ranging from drug dealing and rape and who knows what else are simply going to shape up and discover their better selves because a noble general treats them with respect.

And don’t ask how in the real world, prisoners no matter with what reason, virtually destroy an army prison, are going to be treated after that flag stops rippling in the breeze and the words “The End” come up on the screen.

Director Rod Lurie is a West Point graduate – he also has “The Contender” (not the worthiest of credits) – so it’s to be expected some of the military detailing, if not the overall plot structure, is at least accurate.

Will Lurie, Redford and Gandolfini get invited to the White House for a screening? Will the president be gracious enough to overlook some of those pretty negative comments Redford made during election time? Maybe, after all, the film will have some genuine recruitment value in the days to come.