Synopsis: Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Reverend Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, Kate Easton, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Length: 124 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: It’s not lost on this reviewer that the director behind the tin-eared Last Flag Flying is Richard Linklater. Linklater has built a career on authentic sounding/feeling movies like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, not to mention his career high of Boyhood. Following that up with the enjoyable Everybody Wants Some! which was seen as a spiritual sequel to his earlier Dazed and Confused, Linklater seemed like he was entering a mid-career golden zone of easy-going character driven films.
So you’ll forgive me for being pretty surprised that he’s at the helm of Last Flag Flying, a phony baloney film that not only wastes two good actors (and one mediocre one) but your valuable holiday time as well. A kinda-sorta sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail (which, full disclosure, I have not seen), this is a long trip with a short premise and it all goes nowhere. I’m usually fairly forgiving with movies that limp out of the gate if they can finish strong but this one falls flat from the very beginning and never gets back up again.
On a cold night in 2003, a Larry Shepherd enters a dive bar in Virginia. The man (Steve Carell, Freeheld) strikes up a conversation with Sal, the guy behind the bar (Bryan Cranston, Godzilla) and reveals himself to be an old Vietnam war buddy the bartender hasn’t seen in decades. With lingering guilt over a crime Sal was involved with that Larry took the fall for, Sal agrees to accompany Larry on a day trip to a church nearby. That’s where they meet up with former comrade in arms Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, Passengers), who has transformed from a war-time wild man to a man of the cloth.
Larry has tracked down these two men because he recently lost not only his wife to a long-term illness but has just learned his son was killed in the Iraq war. Would these men accompany Larry as he buries his son in Arlington Cemetery, you know, for old times sake? Mueller was also involved with the indiscretion that saw Larry serving time in custody and while Larry doesn’t explicitly say the two men owe him one, the suggestion is that this small favor is something they can do to right a past wrong and clear their conscience. It also helps Mueller’s wife forces him to go.
Thus begins a road trip that stretches across multiple states and forms of transportation as the three men bring the fallen solider home to his final rest. Along the way old war wounds are opened and the guys must come to terms with what they did and how that changed the course of everything they’ve done since they returned to the states. There’s even a chance for some small redemption with a stop to visit with the mother (Cicely Tyson, Alex Cross, excellent with limited screen time) of a soldier killed in Vietnam.
All of this should have panned out to a rewarding experience, but the movie is so faux in thought, word, and deed that I never warmed to anyone or anything on screen. I never once bought that the three leads were former military, nor that they would ever in a million years be friends. I know war makes friends out of enemies but there’s no authenticity in the performances or in the script from Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan. While Fishburne is the most believable, he’s also the one least invested in the movie. Carell continues to be an actor with interesting depths but struggles with a role that asks him to emote in all the wrong ways. As usual, the actor that has the greatest trouble is poor Cranston who proves again that he’s an actor probably best suited for television. Cranston’s performance (much like his hammy Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo) is all hot air and booming voice; when you place it aside Fishburne and Carell who are trying to find their own arcs he just crumbles under the pressure. It’s a memorably forgettable performance in a movie that’s equally a huge write-off.
I can think of a half-dozen actors that could have pulled these roles off better but at the heart of the movie’s problems is a meandering script and poor pacing – that falls squarely on Linklater’s shoulders. There’s a kernel of an appealing movie at play but before we’d even reached the halfway mark I was waving the white flag of distress. Skip it… Now it’s time for me to go seek out The Last Detail.