LFF 2017: Last Flag Flying Review
You never get that feeling that Richard Linklater's latest effort, Last Flag Flying, is the right fit and it always seems at odds with the tone of much of his work. While his ability to create lively and informal dialogue between characters remains in place, the emotional core of the film is missing in action. As a loose sequel to The Last Detail it follows the spirit of Hal Ashby's original, throwing out a number of references along the way. It's an anti-war, pro-soldier road buddy film that avoids ruffling any furthers and struggles to leave any sort of meaningful mark.
It's 2003 and over 30 years have passed since Sal (Bryan Cranston) last laid eyes on fellow marine Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) and he struggles to recognise him when he walks into his rundown, empty bar. A lot has happened since the end of their tour in Vietnam that saw Doc sentenced to the brig for a couple of years due to a crime Sal and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) were largely responsible for. But it isn't by chance that Doc has turned up out of the blue. His son, Larry Jr., has been killed in action out in Iraq and he wants Sal, and the now reformed Reverend Richard Mueller, to accompany him in transporting his boy to his home town of Hampshire.
Cranston effectively plays the Jack Nicholson role, the well-intentioned but mischievous soul who has never quite grown up, the twinkle in his eye letting everyone know he is always up for another round of drinks and a bit of fun. The actor is clearly enjoying himself in the role and plays off well against Fishburne in particular. Their playful bickering comes from Sal's refusal to accept that the old Mueller "the Mauler" has been lost to God, with Fishburne letting out some of that old attitude while trying to remain within his new skin. Carell's subdued character feels side-lined for much of the film, compared to the bigger personalities of Sal and Mueller. Much of his grief is revealed through long sighs and distance stares and while Carell is fine enough, Linklater doesn’t seem to want to get his hands dirty digging into either his, or the trio's past.
The same can be said about the light war criticism that occasionally rears its head. Angled through the veterans' time in Vietnam through to the Bush war in Iraq is the perception that little has changed in the marine core, that soldiers remain fodder as the Government’s lies keep them engaged in war. Larry Jr.’s best friend and fellow marine, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), is sent by his superior, Col. Wilits (nicely played in the brief time he has by Yul Vazquez), to ensure the funeral ceremony matches his idea of what a military burial should be. By trying to honour military duty while lightly criticising the Government’s willingness to head into battle, Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan (author of both The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying novels) fail to commit to anything of note. Instead, forced sentiment is falsely created by crudely engineered use of Graham Reynold’s score.
Cranston, Fishburne and Carell are at their best when chewing the fat, trawling over the good old days and rediscovering the brotherly bond that felt so unbreakable back in the marines. Without such experienced actors involved this could easily find its way onto the TV schedule as a late Sunday afternoon flick to nod off to. Even though there is a faint through line from one to the other, Linklater himself has said that Last Flag Flying isn’t intended as a sequel to the 1973 film. It’s a wise move to distance his film from the original so its legacy can remain intact, while this Oscar bait effort ultimately fails to carry in the wind.