(This review originally ran as part of my Chicago International Film Festival coverage.)
One of the more disappointing, high-profile works of fall movie season is the latest from Richard Linklater (Boyhood), who still manages to pull fantastic performances from most of his leads in the process. Last Flag Flying is being touted as the “spiritual sequel” to 1973’s The Last Detail, both of which are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan (who also co-wrote this screenplay with Linklater). Again focusing on men in the military—or in this case, veterans many years removed from having served together in Vietnam—Last Flag Flying has Doc (an impressively reserved Steve Carell) going to find his long-lost pals to accompany him through the process of burying his son, a Marine recently killed in Iraq (the film is set at the end of 2003).
One of the pals is Sal (Bryan Cranston), a bar owner and overall degenerate who has no issues abandoning his establishment to help his buddy. Together they collect Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now an esteemed reverend, who reluctantly agrees to go if only to provide spiritual comfort to Doc. But it doesn’t take long for the men to fall victim to their old triggers. Sal is a hothead, and the normally reliable Cranston almost sinks this ship trying to convince us he’s unstable (not unlike Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail). Fishburne and Carell are a bit more believable, especially once Doc begins to come unravelled when he arrives to collect his son’s body.
One of the film’s stand-up supporting performances goes to J. Quinton Johnson (also quite good in Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!) as Washington, a solider assigned to accompany Doc until the funeral who also happened to be the son’s best friend in the Marines. The movie is a bit all over the place in terms of what it’s about and the tone; it’s part social commentary on the military, satire, character study, and road movie. Some of it works better than other parts, and although my heart broke over and over for Doc, the end product is a bit of a mush. Last Flag Flying isn’t unwatchable, but mere hours after seeing it, I’d already stopping thinking about it, which is rare for me when it comes to Linklater’s work.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.