Irwin's transformation from placid inmate to reborn general isn't an automatic one. Indeed, upon his incarceration, he tells Winter that he just wants to do his time and go home to play dominos with the six-year-old grandson he's never met. But as it becomes increasingly clear that Winter not only purposely provokes the men, but punishes them unjustly. Ultimately Irwin decides that the only way to secure Winter's resignation is to seize control of the Castle.
Meanwhile, Yates ("You Can Count on Me's" Mark Ruffalo), the resident bookie whose father served with Irwin in Hanoi, plays both sides against each other, making a deal with Winter for early release while playing along with his fellow inmates. It is he who warns Winter that when the prisoners do take control, they will fly the American flag upside down in the international signal for distress.
The script, written by David Scarpa and Graham Yost, is as solid as the towering buttresses of a medieval castle, building on the chess analogy established early in the film. Irwin illustrates his strategy of toppling Winter (the king) by taking out his soldiers (pawns) and garrisons (rooks) with games pieces and uses a bluff to ferret out his opponent's first three strategic moves. Yet there are plenty of jokey exchanges, such as the inmates' faux salute of running their fingers through their hair, to lighten up an otherwise very serious mood.
In addition, the battle plan is mostly kept under wraps until the climactic sequence, allowing the audience to delight in the prisoners' resourceful makeshift weapons and tools.
Unlike in his political thriller "The Contender," in which the protagonist admirably stands up for her right to privacy only to reveal in the end that she never committed the acts of which she was accused, director Rod Lurie here doesn't exonerate his characters of their terrible crimes. The result is characters who are much more complex and a message that is much more complicated--that even society's worst criminals deserve the most basic human rights.
It is this last bit that is at the heart of what is ultimately a character study about the battle of wills between two men. Irwin is a natural-born leader and three-star general who encourages his men to concentrate on the best in themselves. Redford's comfortable charm and confidence make his character an easy man to rally behind, but he lacks a certain edge one would imagine a decorated officer should have; flashbacks of his fateful mistake could have fleshed out this aspect of his character a bit more.
Winter, on the other hand, is a wannabe who has never set foot on a battlefield but controls the inmates, his enemies, by focusing on the worst in them--and, until the arrival of Irwin, has been quite successful at it. Here Gandolfini is far removed from his signature character, internalizing his rage rather than acting on it--yet his performance yields emotion as palpable as any he's expressed in his award-winning role on the small screen. Starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Burton and Delroy Lindo. Directed by Rod Lurie. Written by David Scarpa and Graham Yost. Produced by Robert Lawrence. A DreamWorks release. Drama. Rated R for language and violence. Running time: 130 min