Last Flag Flying
Last Flag Flying sees Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne's ex-marines take to the road for a knockabout comedy that needs more rage
Richard Linklater has always been mercurial, but lately his career has been particularly unpredictable. Just look at his last three features: there’s loose-limbed baseball jock comedy Everybody Wants Some!!, the 12-years-in-the-making coming-of-age movie Boyhood and his third Midnight project. His latest effort, Last Flag Flying, is another left turn. It’s a pseudo-adaptation of the sequel to Darryl Ponicsan’s first book, The Last Detail, but with the characters and plot reimagined. Ponicsan’s novel was famously turned into a film in 1973 by Hal Ashby, with Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid in the main roles. Linklater has described Last Flag Flying as an “echo” of that earlier movie, but it’s the faintest of reverberations.
In Ashby’s film, Nicholson and Young play seasoned marines fresh from Vietnam who are escorting Quaid’s greenhorn to naval prison for petty larceny. Taking pity on the dumb kid, they take him on a convoluted route up the East Coast, which involves getting drunk, getting laid, and shooting the shit.
Linklater’s film is set in the early days of the second Iraq war, with the three leads now middle-aged and out of the service. Once again we follow a trio on a peripatetic journey, but instead of escorting a dead man walking, it’s a literal dead man – the corpse of a young marine who we’re told died a hero in Iraq. The dead boy’s father is Doc (Steve Carell), who ropes in two old marine pals – foul-mouthed firebrand Sal (Bryan Cranston, channeling Nicholson but getting nowhere near his dangerous charisma) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a former wild-man who’s now a man of the cloth – for the journey.
Like in Ashby’s film, the best scenes are of the three men – who are joined by a fresh-faced marine (Everybody Wants Some!!’s J. Quinton Johnson) – hanging out and shooting the breeze in cheap motel rooms and cramped train carriages. At one point Doc cracks up at Sal’s vivid recollections of his once impressive tumescence, and it’s easy to believe that Carell's tears of joy are a genuine reaction to Cranston’s clowning, especially as it’s one of the few moments in the film we don’t catch him acting behind the ridiculous false moustache he’s wearing. Cranston and Fishburne fair better with more vivid characters and wittier banter. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch them spar about religion. “If it’s a tight-assed god, I’m fucked,” Sal shrugs when considering the possibility of an afterlife.
Last Flag Flying has a handful of joyful moments, but mostly it’s a slog: where Ashby’s film was lyrical, Linklater’s meat and potato direction leans toward the lugubrious. What’s missed most, however, is The Last Detail's counterculture anger. And if any film should bubble over with rage it’s Last Flag Flying. This is the story, after all, about how two generations of Americans have been fed a lie; the fathers were sent to a jungle to kill for their country, the sons a desert, and neither know why.
Linklater sets us up for incandescence but he’s too easy-going for that; every punch is blandly pulled in place of platitudes about patriotism and the honour to serve one’s country. These men have been put through the meat grinder and their children coerced into fighting a similarly unwinnable war, yet by the end they’re squeezing their broken bodies back into uniform and saluting the flag. Nicholson's fury is sorely missed.
Last Flag Flying screens at London Film Festival 8, 9 and 10 Oct. Its UK release date is still to be confirmed