Last Flag Flying

In Brief: Good movie but also one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

Last Flag Flying is this year’s biggest disappointment. Yes, yes, yes, it’s a good movie and one most of you will like. Hell, I liked it. But I wanted to love Last Flag Flying and not just “like” the thing.

The film is co-written and directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood). His co-writer is Darryl Ponicsan who penned the novel. The novel — disappointment number-one — is the sequel to Ponicsan’s brilliant novel The Last Detail. It was made into one of 1973’s best films and starred Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young.

By the way, Ponicsan was a player in the 1980s and wrote some great films like Vision Quest, The Boost, Nuts, Taps, Cinderella Liberty and — as noted — The Last Detail which is also based on his book.

That book and the film knock military leadership — but not necessarily the military — around a bit. So does this one and it also takes on the idiocy of sending our troops where our leaders tend to send them these days.

However, Last Flag Flying — the movie — is not a sequel to the book and does not revisit the original film’s three characters and walk you through how their lives turned out. Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on whether all that’s changed is the names of the characters as part of the focus is the past relationships of the men involved.

You’ve seen the trailers. It’s 2003 and Steve Carell’s Doc looks up old Vietnam war pals done by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. None of them have seen each other since they left that country. Cranston’s Sal Nealon hasn’t changed much since Vietnam. He is a 50-something, or maybe even 60-something, drunken party animal who owns a bar. Fishburne’s Richard Mueller has given up drink and drugs and taken up God. He’s clean, sober and a minister.

By the way, the book was written in 2005. Doc’s son was a Marine and was killed in Iraq. He wants his old friends to go with him to bury the boy. But something is amiss in the story Doc is told about how his son died.

That leads to a whole other crisis.

Something is also wrong with the friendship. A big part of the film is how the three old friends dance around what happened to Doc in Vietnam while dancing around getting to know each other again.

Disappointment two. Carell and Fishburne. The former’s character is given a heavy load to carry. Doc’s son has died. The Marine Corps lied. Connecting with Nealon and Mueller again has to be painful. Yet, Linklater doesn’t give him much to do. There is no explosive, emotional payoff. He sits quietly most of the film and is contemplative.

Carell might as well have been a mannequin.

Fishburne has a similar problem. He has more to do than Carell but his Mueller becomes Jiminy Cricket to Cranston’s Pinocchio. Fishburne isn’t a very good conscience. You never buy his character or what the man is all about and has become. He fills dialogue space.

Disappointment three. The script. It drags about with the three men ending up escorting the coffin of Doc’s son to its final resting place. Along the way they talk about how their lives went and what they’ve done with them, their past experiences in the military and with each other.

Then there’s the expected anti-military rant. Doc’s son is dead, and he and his two friends take the expected digs at the whys of war and the lunacy of American leadership that puts soldiers in harm’s way.

While the script scores some good points, it feels forced.

What works? Bryan Cranston. Carell, Fishburne and others in the cast are forced to play people lacking three dimensions. Cranston’s Sal has three. No, make that four or five. I say that with tongue-in-cheek but, damn, he’s all over the place in this film and has one of the meatiest characters to come along in a long time.

Cranston makes the most of this character and has a blast with the role, with the story and with the dialogue. He tosses out laugh-out-loud one-liners with ease. Cranston’s Sal is larger than life yet small enough — once the B.S. is behind him — to be a good and decent human being.

So why see Last Flag Flying? Cranston. Period. He’s terrific. Other than that, Last Flag Flying — while better than the average movie — is flying at half mast.

Director: Richard Linklater

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson

This one is good but mostly flies at half mast. Give it a 3 1/2 on the Average Joe Movie 0 to 5 scale.

Click here for showtimes and theaters.

5 to 4 1/2: Must see on the big screen.
4 to 3 1/2: Good film, see it if it’s your type of movie.
3 to 2 1/2: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 to 1: Don’t bother.
0:Speaks for itself.

Gary Wolcott has been a movie consultant for KXL since 2014. A lifelong fan of film, he’s been a film critic in radio, television and newspaper for 25-years. Wolcott catches a couple of hundred movies a year and he sees a great many of them so you don’t have to.

Got a movie suggestion or comment? Click here to email him.

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