James Gandolfini, with his squinty-eyed jocular malevolence, is right to want to play a character as different as possible from Tony Soprano, but he doesn't exactly expand the supple end of his acting range in The Last Castle. As Colonel Winter, the weak-souled fascist warden of a maximum-security military prison, Gandolfini speaks in a softly robotic lisp that sounds like Tony minus New Jersey, and he seems to spend half his screen time polishing a collection of antique war weapons. Winter, who likes to keep his prisoners in line with trigger-happy guards who fire rubber bullets (they're sometimes lethal), has never been in combat, but as head of the prison fortress, he has made himself the commander of a ''war'' that only he can win.
That is, until a new inmate arrives. Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) is a three-star general who has recently been court-martialed. A former Vietnam POW, he's also a decorated veteran of Bosnia and the Gulf War, and whatever the severity of his infraction, it's clear that it pales in significance next to the steadiness of his gaze, the steeliness of his courage, the warmth of his paternal spirit. This is, after all, not just Robert Redford. It's Redford in the nobly burnished self-mythologic perfection of his late-middle-aged golden god-ness.
''The Last Castle,'' a grimly watchable yet sodden prison melodrama, was directed by Rod Lurie, and here, as in that overheated political circus ''The Contender,'' Lurie demonstrates his weakness for heavy-handed ''topical'' dialectics. The picture is structured as an epic battle between Winter, the despot who regards his prisoners as animals, and Irwin, the born leader who reminds them they're soldiers after all. Yet as staged by Lurie, the drama has all the subtlety and surprise of a showdown between the sissy-bully son of Captain Queeg and a hero who's like a fusion of Brubaker, Spartacus, and Norma Rae.