The healing balm of conversation has been a constant in the films of Richard Linklater, along with a recurring motif exploring the rewards of masculine companionship that stretches from Dazed and Confused through Everybody Wants Some!! Both themes are key elements in Last Flag Flying, an amiable, intermittently moving blend of buddy road movie and homefront war drama, making it seem a natural fit for the director. But despite poignant moments, particularly in the performances of Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne, the weave of somber introspection, rueful reminiscence, irreverent comedy and sociopolitical commentary feels effortful, placing the movie among the less memorable entries in Linklater's canon.
Paradoxically, for a film that often breaks into preachy discussions about the why of war — drawing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq — and the nature of truth and heroism, Last Flag Flying would appear to have little to say to the liberal audiences that are Linklater's natural constituency. Instead, it's the heartland crowd who will more likely respond to its mawkish consideration of sacrifice and regret.
The consolatory closing scenes try to have it both ways by reinforcing the characters' belief in the value of service to their country, even if they question the lack of transparency in the government mandates behind it. But the absence of a strong message for either side will dampen the prospects of this Amazon/Lionsgate release, which should easily improve on the lackluster performance of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk but will fall significantly short of the mainstream embrace of American Sniper.
While the 2005 source novel by co-screenwriter Darry Ponicsan was a direct sequel to the author's debut, The Last Detail, the names of characters and some of the circumstances have been changed. However, even if the new movie stands on its own, the echoes of that earlier work, and in particular of the 1973 Jack Nicholson film version, adapted by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby, are discernible loud and clear.
Not only do the contours of the main characters and the protest nature and destination of their Eastern Seaboard journey correspond, but Linklater's style is perhaps as close as that of anyone working today to the New Hollywood stamp of Ashby in his good decade. Both directors are unflashy craftsmen who disguise structure within loose, freewheeling narratives; and both dig with subtlety, compassion and humor for the human complexity in their flawed characters. But the best of Linklater's films — the exquisite Boyhood and the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy — are notable for their relaxed assurance, for a textural richness that feels entirely organic, never studied.
Last Flag Flying is a far more calculated assembly, particularly in scenes of cringingly forced comedy that wither and die next to the comparable but more genuinely off-kilter moments in The Last Detail. That's partly because Bryan Cranston's salty former Marine Sal — a thin rewrite of Billy "Badass" Buddusky, played by Nicholson in the earlier film with a diabolical mischief that was irresistible — is such a broad portrayal of a brash, boozing reprobate that he quickly becomes tiresome company.
It's 2003 and he's holding court with a lone customer at his grungy Virginia watering hole, Sal's Bar & Grill (the "Grill" part went by the wayside), when ex-Navy man Larry Shepherd (Carell), whom he remembers from their Vietnam days as Doc, wanders in out of the rain. Without sharing the purpose of his visit, Doc the next morning bundles a hungover Sal into the car and they head to a Baptist church, where the third member of their trio from 30 years earlier, "Mueller the Mauler," is now the Reverend Richard (Fishburne), preaching to his Sunday congregation.
After lunch with Richard and his kindly wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), Doc reveals his reason for tracking down his two estranged Marine buddies, a process that prompts Sal to marvel repeatedly over the wonders of the World Wide Web. Doc's son Larry Jr., a 21-year-old Marine, was just killed in Baghdad, and his body is being flown home for a hero's burial at Arlington Cemetery. Having recently lost his wife to cancer, Doc asks his old friends to accompany him for emotional support. But the circumstances of Larry Jr.'s death are not as reported, causing Doc to refuse a military burial and insist on transporting his son's body back home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to be buried alongside his mother. (That town is the site of the Naval prison where Doc spent two years, and where Randy Quaid's character was being escorted to in The Last Detail.)
There's an attempt to heighten conflict via an unyielding Marine Colonel (Yul Vasquez) who clashes with anti-authoritarian Sal and strongly disagrees with Doc's decision. And there's some strained antic comedy when Sal plants false suggestions of Richard's terrorist sympathies, stoking the interest of homeland security. But these scenes — unfolding simultaneously with the capture of Saddam Hussein on TV news footage — are so ineffectually handled that the film's points about post-9/11 paranoia and military coffins being carefully hidden from public view get blunted.
Once the journey is underway, with Larry Jr.'s close friend Lance Corp. Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) assigned as the trio's official Marine escort, a more easygoing rhythm takes hold. But Linklater's establishment of the brotherhood linking the retired servicemen is never sufficiently convincing to make moments of reflection nor interludes of supposedly infectious hilarity ring true. The worst is a pointless scene in which Sal insists they all get in on the then-burgeoning cellphone craze, allowing him to make a prank call to Richard from God. Aside from that, and a touch of early-2000s technological nostalgia, the phone element has no plot function.
Among the more effective scenes is a detour to pay a call on the elderly mother (Cicely Tyson, ever the model of grace and dignity) of another buddy from their extended tour in Vietnam, whose death has weighed heavily on the three men over the decades. That visit doesn't go according to Sal's plan, and the solemn veil cast over them as they resume their journey helps to amplify the emotional impact of the somewhat meandering film's closing act.
Cinematographer Shane F. Kelly strikes a melancholy tone with exteriors shot mostly in rain or muted wintry light, and composer Graham Reynolds' gentle score mirrors that mood. The same goes for Carell's subdued performance as soft-spoken Doc, who has absorbed his share of disappointment and hurt in life but remains a man of quiet integrity. Fishburne uses his mellifluous voice to commanding effect as the man of the cloth whose less pious past manner keeps reasserting itself in amusing ways. But Cranston's characterization is too one-note abrasive to support the philosophical baggage Sal is meant to carry, and the function of Johnson's Washington in the story as a modern reflection of the Vietnam vets' experience barely registers.
Linklater and Ponicsan deserve recognition for attempting to draw a throughline from Vietnam to Iraq, considering the honor of American military service while questioning its purpose and its losses. But Last Flag Flying is a disappointingly toothless statement, notable chiefly as a pallid reminder of a far more trenchant movie from more than 40 years ago.
Production companies: Detour, ZenZero Pictures, Cinetic Media, in association with Big Indie Pictures
Distributor: Lionsgate/Amazon Studios
Cast: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vasquez, Cicely Tyson, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster, Graham Wolfe, Jeff Monahan
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan, based on Ponicsan’s novel
Producers: Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater, John Sloss
Executive producers: Harry Gittes, Thomas Lee Wright, Karen Ruth Getchell
Director of photography: Shane F. Kelly
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Sandra Adair
Casting: Donna Belajac
Venue: New York Film Festival (Opening Night)
Rated R, 124 minutes