The time is 1950. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) lives in a small Alabama town with his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and teenage stepdaughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta) running his own small bar called the Honeydripper. Despite his piano playing and the presence of a fabulous blues singer (Mable John who sang with Ray Charles as one of the Raelettes) the place is empty losing business to the livelier joint down the road. As the plodding and predictable story unfolds the stereotypes of the era emerge including the prejudiced and self-aggrandizing white sheriff (Stacy Keach) a group of disgruntled black farm workers and even a hellfire-and-brimstone traveling preacher who sets up shop in a revival tent. In his attempt to save his bar from going under Purvis resorts to a series of less-than-legal moves aided by his trusty right-hand man (Charles S. Dutton) and a mysterious young man (Gary Clark Jr.) who arrives in town toting a newfangled guitar--and who eventually plays a whole new kind of music: rock and roll. The assembled cast of Honeydripper is normally a talented group of actors but in this film they mostly seem to be going through the motions. Danny Glover looks like he is sleepwalking through his role as the bar owner who can’t make ends meet. As his wife Lisa Gay Hamilton does a familiar slightly histrionic variation on the put-upon spouse who retreats into religion as an escape from her family problems. And Stacy Keach is a total caricature of the bad southern sheriff. The brightest lights in this mostly dismal film are the two younger actors Gary Clark Jr. and Yaya DaCosta whose romance is a subplot of the central story. And the hands-down best performance is given by blues guitar great Keb’ Mo’ as a blind musician who offers up much-needed musical interludes throughout the film. At least he seems to be enjoying himself while most of the others onscreen struggle to deliver the hackneyed dialogue that riddles Sayles’ yawn-inducing script. It is hard to believe that John Sayles--the same man who wrote directed and edited wonderful movies like Lone Star Passion Fish and City of Hope--is the person behind Honeydripper. Sayles one of the cinema’s truly independent filmmakers has always had a very specific vision and voice a point of view that has garnered him two Academy Award nominations for screenwriting. But Honeydripper is just a disappointment with its completely predictable plotline and deathly slow pace. The one bright light in this plodding tale is the music. Early on Mable John lights things up with a couple of great old blues tunes then Keb’ Mo’ throws in some terrific riffs midway followed (finally!) by Gary Clark Jr.’s rousing rock and roll set that closes out the picture. If only the whole film was as interesting and fun to watch as the last 10 minutes when the music really ramps up. Sadly as it is by the time those final moments arrive the viewer is barely awake.
October 19, 2001 5:57am EST
The film opens with prison warden Colonel Winter (Robert Redford) greeting the highly respected General Irwin (James Gandolfini) at the start of his 10-year sentence for disobeying a presidential order. When they meet Irwin makes a snide remark about Winter--a non combatant--proudly showcasing military trinkets and memorabilia in his office. The comment instantly touches off a power war between the two which ends with Irwin threatening to take over the prison and flying the American flag upside down--a symbol that the castle has fallen. Winter rises to the challenge and the two begin their strategic plotting. Irwin wins the respect of his fellow inmates in an overly drawn scene where he is forced to carry large stones from one pile to another in the prison courtyard and forms an army of inmates using clichéd chess tactics to demonstrate his assault plans. Winter meanwhile watches from his cozy office overlooking the courtyard as if he was watching a reality series on a big-screen TV.
The highly regarded General Irwin is a simple solemn type which unfortunately is what is fundamentally wrong with the film. While Redford does the brooding thing quite well the script never calls for him to do anything more than that. James Gandolfini takes on the role of prison warden Colonel Winter with fitting simplicity. He accentuates Winter's dumb-thug persona by over-enunciating his words and speaking in an unnaturally slow manner. Redford and Gandolfini both churn out great performances but it would have been more rewarding had the script called for their characters to be more well-rounded. Steve Burton plays Winter's right hand man Captain Peretz convincingly considering what few lines he has. His body language facial expressions and dialogue manage to convey his character's thoughts even when his lines don't.
Directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender) The Last Castle is a well-paced story without a dull moment. It concludes with a dramatic and exciting climax but the problem is it's just too simple. While it's easy to get caught up in the story it's hard to buy how easily the inmates are able to take control of such a heavily guarded maximum-security prison. Using cafeteria trays as shields is one thing but hurling stones using a giant catapult that somehow went unnoticed by prison security is hard to swallow. So is the fact that these inmates a group of hardened criminals cooperate so easily with hardly any friction. While it could have been a very emotional story it fails because the characters are one-dimensional and never really explored including the two main characters played by Redford and Gandolfini. One is a great strategist and the other draconian but viewers are left to guess why and how they got that way.