Richard Linklater’s last three features are up there with some of the best films this decade, so it’s no surprise that Last Flag Flying marks an inevitable dip in form. But, while his latest doesn’t match the remarkable ambition of Boyhood, the emotional nuance of Before Midnight or the euphoric joys of Everybody Wants Some!!, it’s still an entertaining addition to Linklater’s astonishing canon of work. A heartfelt, amusing road trip drama, elevated by the electric camaraderie between its leading trio.
A sequel of sorts to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail (both films are adaptations of Darryl Ponicsan’s series of novels), Last Flag Flying begins in December 2003, post 9/11 and two years into the war in Afghanistan. The film follows Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a reserved man who is mourning the death of his son who’s been killed on duty in Baghdad. On top of this, Doc lost his wife to breast cancer just six months prior. In need of companionship Doc seeks out his former Corpsmen, who he served with in Vietnam 30 years ago, to accompany him to his son’s military funeral. Doc finds wise-cracking joker Sal (Bryan Cranston) running his own dive-bar in Virginia and tracks down reformed gambler, alcoholic and ladies-man Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who’s now a happily married pastor preaching in Pennsylvania. After a little persuasion, the trio embark on a road trip which sees them looking back over their lives.
While the narrative revolves around Doc’s story, it’s the dynamic between Sal and Mueller which really stands out. Cranston and Fishburne are on scintillating form here, injecting the film with humour, charisma and effervescence. The chemistry between them is a joy to behold as they exchange quick-witted jibes and lock horns over their diverse world views. Although Carell’s understated performance may not grab the headlines, he imbues Doc with heart-breaking pathos and his friendship with Sal and Mueller feels completely genuine too. One stand-out scene onboard a train sees the trio reminiscing over their youthful escapades in fits of laughter. It’s in these intimate, improvisational, hilarious conversations that Last Flag Flying really soars.
On duty Marine Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who accompanies the trio back to New Hampshire after Doc decides to bury his son in his hometown, also slips effortlessly into the back and forth banter of the group. The same can’t be said for Col. Wilits (Yul Vazquez) whose over-the-top, antagonist persona clashes with the film’s melancholic, authentic tone.
The film’s road-trip format also allows plenty of time for some typical Linklater musings on life. This existential talk throws up eloquent, poignant and humorous discussions on religion, the impacts and futility of war, the trio’s disenchantment with modern life and the propaganda of the Marine Corps. While the dialogue of Ponicsan and Linklater’s script is incisive and witty, there are points where the narrative begins to feel episodic and the film doesn’t have the same natural, free-flowing energy of Linklater’s previous works. Nonetheless, the film concludes on a potent, sombre, heartrending scene of mourning which feels completely earned. So while not rivalling Linklater’s phenomenal bests, Last Flag Flying is superbly acted and punctuated with an abundance of warm, comical, touching moments.