Last Flag Flying begins in a minor key, with three grumpy old men reuniting over their shared history and musing that times sure have changed. You'd be forgiven for thinking this might be a lark for Richard Linklater, a hired-gun job to tide him over until a more personal project comes along.
But the movie deepens quickly. It sends the mind moving, to the links between Vietnam and Iraq, to the bonds of grief and friendship, and to what it means to serve a country and an institution that gives and takes away. And it creates an echo effect for anyone who has seen the 1973 Hal Ashby movie The Last Detail.
That film, based on Darryl Poniscan's novel of the same name, starred Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as Navy grunts escorting a fresh-faced kid (a 22-year-old Randy Quaid) to the brig. The kid's crime was minor, and the grunts feel rotten about their assignment. In the course of their sad errand, the three men act out the only way they can — guzzling beer, beating up some Marines, visiting a brothel — and stay loyal to the job and to the uniform.
Last Flag Flying is Poniscan's sequel, published as a novel in 2005 and now coming out as a film co-written by Poniscan and Linklater. The movie is really less of a sequel than the book. Onscreen the three characters have different names, and they're now ex-Marines (which puts The Last Detail's Navy/Marine brawl scene in a completely new context). The new film isn't bound to its predecessor, and that turns out to be a good thing. Last Flag Flying lives and breathes on its own; it has more of a thematic and spiritual kinship to The Last Detail than a concrete narrative connection.
It's 2003, and Nicholson's wild man Buddusky is now Bryan Cranston's alcoholic bar owner Sal Nealon. Quaid's Meadows is now Steve Carell's Doc Shepard, who carries his sadness and disappointment in his slumped shoulders. Doc's son has been killed in Iraq, and he faces the task of burying the boy in Arlington National Cemetery. He wants the company and closure of old friends, and so he enlists Sal and another former Marine buddy, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), for one more last detail.
The casting is perfect. Cranston is an animal, snarling and scraggly and bitterly anti-authority, a vivid projection of Buddusky as an older man. Fishburne's Mueller (named Mulhall in the first film) has mellowed into a respected reverend, but you can sense the young, angry guy lurking just beneath the surface. (You also might recall Fishburne as a trigger-happy teen in another war movie, Apocalypse Now). Carell is a master at bypassing maudlin on the way to despair, a rare talent for an actor who made his name by being funny.
The three men get reacquainted through their unhappy errand and an East Coast road trip that mirrors the trek in The Last Detail. They drive to retrieve the body of Doc's son, and discover that the official story of his death doesn't match the facts. They meet a young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson, excellent here and in Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!!), who becomes their military chaperone as they decide to take matters into their own hands. And they arrive at truths and regrets the way characters generally do in a Linklater film: by talking, fighting and laughing over an extended period of time. Linklater doesn't do screeds. He lets the characters lay it out there and figure it out for themselves.
In this sense, he's the offspring of Last Detail director Hal Ashby, who also made such films as Being There, Shampoo and Harold and Maude. Both Linklater and Ashby are more interested in the journey than the destination, the process by which people grow and fall apart and come together. They're students of human nature whose observations add up to resonant stories.
The other main character here is the military itself. It once gave these men their purpose in life, and in some ways it still does. It has also lied to them, and shown little interest in them once their utility has expired. Last Flag Flying, like The Last Detail, is a war movie without a shot fired. Instead we hear the echoes, the sound of one war, long over, blending into one of more recent vintage. The song has changed, and yet it remains much the same.
Last Flag Flying (B+)
Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated R (language throughout including sexual references). 124 mins. At the Magnolia, the AMC NorthPark, and the Angelika Plano.