How has Richard Linklater never made a road movie before Last Flag Flying? Linklater is insanely productive and his movies often luxuriate in either observations of human interaction (the Before trilogy; Dazed and Confused; Everybody Wants Some!! and many more), exactly the kind of vibe that could benefit a road trip focused on characters rather than antics. Last Flag Flying feels like a vintage Linklater project in other, more left-field ways: As a kinda-sorta-not-really sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 dramedy The Last Detail, it shares with the earlier film exactly the kind of unofficial companionship that ties Linklater’s experiments like Slacker and Waking Life.
At a press conference preceding Last Flag Flying’s New York Film Festival opening-night premiere, author Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the two novels that inspired the films, and worked with Linklater to adapt the newer one to the screen) alluded to the fact that Last Flag’s frayed connection with its predecessor may be at least in part a legal matter. Presumably, rights issues prevented them from making a straight sequel to The Last Detail, which means the adaptation doesn’t fully match the backstory of its literary or cinematic predecessors. In the novels and Ashby’s films, Buddusky and Mulhall are Naval officers who meet a younger Navy man called Meadows when they’re assigned to escort him to military prison. Reunited for Last Flag Flying, their names are changed to Sal (Bryan Cranston), Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry (Steve Carell), who met as Marines serving in Vietnam.
But their journey still mirrors the older film. Larry tracks down his long-estranged friends when his son, also a Marine, gets killed in Iraq, and the three men take another multi-city trip to meet the boy’s coffin and escort the body to its final burial. The mirrored structure makes it difficult not to compare the new film to the old one, even though it’s technically about different characters (it’s especially difficult if you watch The Last Detail less than 24 hours before the new film. Oops!). It’s not fair, but then again, the movie makes some references: Sal blows cigar-smoke rings like his Jack Nicholson counterpart, the guys joke about using a military per-diem for fun times, and they stop in many of the same cities, using similarly multi-modal transportation (buses, trains, and so on).
The comparison flatters no one – especially not the actors, who are compelling but are often stranded by sincere yet rote dialogue and relationships. Sal is the “irreverent” guy who – get this – drinks too much, doesn’t really believe in God, and doesn’t really trust the government! Mueller, now a reverend, shakes his head wryly and reads the scriptures. And Larry keeps quiet and low-key, wracked by grief but determined to do right by his son.
In their own oppositional ways, Cranston and Carell are both doing a kind of shtick: Cranston’s overacting (he can’t resist indulging in some Nicholson-y bravado) that hammers home his middling laugh lines, and Carell’s tasteful underplaying as an innocent martyr. They both have their moments, and they have them at the same time during a scene where Sal and Larry both get excited to purchase their first cell phones (the movie is set in 2003). More often, though, Linklater fails to find the relaxed conversational groove so many of his movies fall into; Last Flag Flying is stolid in a way that Ashby’s movie (similarly episodic and talky) is not.
Linklater wanted to make this movie for about ten years before he got the chance, and at the NYFF press conference, he spoke of getting some distance from the material’s early-’00s period as a benefit of this longer gestation. Thing is, Last Flag feels very much like a movie of that era – one of those respectful, respectable Iraq War issue pictures that started coming out a few years after the conflict’s semi-permanent status sank in. It also feels removed from Linklater’s recent hot streak; the naturalism of Boyhood gets Serious Acted out of the frame here. This road picture’s many detours, the stuff that should be right in Linklater’s wheelhouse, mostly feel, well, like vexing delays. Cranston, Carell, and Fishburne are never less than watchable, and parts of Last Flag Flying are plainly affecting. But it’s not thorny or all that funny or especially complicated. Unlike Ashby’s uniquely grim irreverence, it stays squarely in the middle of the road.