"Last Flag Flying" -- ★ ★ ½
Richard Linklater's "Last Flag Flying" is an unorthodox kind of sequel.
It's something of a follow-up to Hal Ashby's great 1973 film "The Last Detail," in which two petty officers (Otis Young and a youthful, blistering Jack Nicholson) transport a naive 18-year-old soldier (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to the brig in New Hampshire for stealing $40 from a charity.
Ashby's film was a real-time odyssey, glorious in its fiery expletives (courtesy of screenwriter Robert Towne) and seething in its outrage. As a film, it's still alive, and Nicholson's cackle still echoes.
"Last Flag Flying" is a journey mapped over the same terrain, but the central trio is now middle-aged. Their reason for reuniting after three decades is more melancholy.
Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell, in a version of Quaid's character) gathers together his old Vietnam War buddies -- Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, Nicholson's anti-authoritarian rabble-rouser) and Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) -- to bury his son, a Marine killed in Iraq.
"Last Flag" is based on Darryl Ponicsan's 2003 novel, a sequel to his 1970 book that Ashby and Towne turned into "The Last Detail."
Linklater's film has severed some of those ties, changing the characters names and slightly shifting their background while still maintaining much of the connective tissue to "The Last Detail."
The movie's gentle, rolling humanism is indeed its own, yet "The Last Detail" stands like an island around which the movie flows.
The balance of the trio is off, too. Cranston, a gifted performer, acts like a funny live-wire where Nicholson simply was one.
Carell gives a performance that feels hollowed out by its grieving solemnity.
Fishburne, never one unsure of his footing, alone feels in the right place.
Although "Last Flag Flying" lacks the edge of Towne's dialogue, it remains a deeply thoughtful film about how so much changes (in one scene the guys buy cellphones, marveling at the invention) while so much stays the same.
When the guys arrive in Washington to see the body of Doc's son, they quickly square off with a hard line Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez) who disapproves of Doc's decision to bury his son at home in New Hampshire instead of Arlington National Cemetery.
Some scenes pulsate with anti-war passion, sometimes a little too obviously.
Despite its flaws, the film gathers an honest force as it burrows deeper into its characters as they (along with J. Quinton Johnson's young Marine) travels up the coast.
It's a trip that glimmers with mournful reflection on the human cost of war and the camaraderie among soldiers.
Times change. New wars are fought. The same kids pay the price.
That "Last Flag Flying" is a sequel, with future installments sure to come, is the point.
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Starring: Steve Carell, Brian Cranston, Lawrence Fishburne
Directed by: Richard Linkater
Other: An Amazon Studios release. Rated R for language. 124 minutes