‘Last Flag Flying’ Has A Theatrical Mission (Movie Review)

After completing his epic (Boyhood) and reliving some glory years (Everybody Wants Some!!), director Richard Linklater has made a step into adult-themed prestige territory. Last Flag Flying is a sorta sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson. Both films are based on author Darryl Ponicsan’s novels, with Last Flag Flying serving as an actual sequel. For the film, which Ponicsan co-wrote with Linklater, characters are changed and the year is 2003, but the concept is familiar. It’s so familiar that it becomes hard to recognize the film as anything more as an entertaining watch involving talented actors doing a lot of talking in various locations. That sounds like a typical Linklater film, but the director seems like he’s more or less cooling off.

Set at a time when the Iraq War was just getting started, Steve Carell stars as Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a reserved man who meets up with Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon at a bar. It takes a second, but Sal soon remembers Doc, catches up with him a bit, and the two then go to meet up with Laurence Fishburne’s Mueller. Now a minister, Mueller was once a part of the same Marine unit as Doc and Sal during the Vietnam War. Once united, Doc reveals his true intentions. His son was killed in Iraq and he wants his former buddies to accompany him to the funeral.

Last Flag Flying primarily functions as a road movie with a lot on its mind. It’s a somber human comedy that relies on characters making observations about the changes in their current time, dealing with how they’ve aged and addressing sociopolitical circumstances. There is plenty of introspection here and the actors all do a nice job of handling the characters they are inhabiting and all the dialogue that comes with them. Still, I could never quite feel the power that was supposed to be coming from some of the film’s more significant moments.

Being a Linklater film, there is a natural, subdued quality present. Scenes are underplayed, despite how big some of the actors (usually Cranston) perform them. If anything, Last Flag Flying feels a lot more like a theatrical stage production that has been turned into a cinematic feature. That’s not a knock on the look or design of this film, but because of its simplicity, I do wonder how this would play by minimalizing what is going on around the actors involved.

To delve into where the film stands, Last Flag Flying has all it needs to make some interesting commentary, given the 2003 setting. Linklater has made minor efforts in the past to express political leanings, but it is a bit more overt here for obvious reasons. That said, the film seems to want to balance being anti-war and pro-military. This is a tricky line to walk on, which would perhaps be ultimately more effective if Carell, Cranston and Fishburne actually seemed like veterans. They put on a show and make interesting characters out of it, sure, but the irreverent comedy that emerges now and again holds the film back from feeling more authentic.

Now to be fair, this trio works well together and there is some fine support from J. Quinton Johnson and Cicely Tyson, in a brief scene. I can’t quite say the same about Yul Vazquez, as he’s a bit too much of a caricature, but it only adds to the fun created by Cranston. This is very much a male bonding movie and in that regard, it doesn’t need much more than a brief set up of a situation, followed by the characters hanging around and trading lines, quips and monologues. There’s just not much else there.

One could say this is old fashion filmmaking and that’s fine. Not having seen The Last Detail up until the day before watching Last Flag Flying, it is easy to see how Linklater kept Ashby’s sensibilities in mind with this follow-up. It’s a whole other thing to consider why it was time to make a “sequel,” but that doesn’t discount the work to make a film that’s effective enough as a comedy-drama with an emphasis on sadness. As a mild satire, however, the film does better having a laugh at the introduction of cell phones than it does pointing out political concerns.

Last Flag Flying has plenty going for it to make the film an easy watch. It’s limited in scope but genuinely well-acted in a way that makes you feel like you’ve been hanging out with this group for years. That’s the sort of naturalism that tends to come from Linklater and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perhaps a minor effort from Linklater, but it’s enjoyable enough as a solid character study.

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