Nobody does sequels better than Richard Linklater, as his “Before” trilogy proved over three brilliantly chatty movies. However, “Last Flag Flying” represents a fresh challenge: It’s the unofficial sequel to a 44-year-old movie, picking up the threads of a story that predates Linklater’s career by more than decade. The result is an understated drama so measured that its surface-level plot about a grief-stricken man and his old war buddies might easily be mistaken for half-baked sentimentalism. However, “Last Flag Flying” succeeds in following the aging Vietnam vets of Hal Ashby’s 1973 “The Last Detail” by sharing the same critical tone, connecting Ashby’s countercultural rage to Linklater’s introspection.
Where Robert Towne and Darryl Ponicsan adapted “The Last Detail” from Ponicsan’s 1970 novel, Linklater and Ponicsan do likewise with “Last Flag Flying,” which Ponicsan published in 2005. Without reaching the philosophically profound heights of “Boyhood” or the ruminative comedy of “Everybody Wants Some!!”, it’s still a thoughtful and well-acted look at confused, estranged people working through their problems with the fine art of conversation.
“Last Flag Flying” isn’t a sequel in the traditional sense — even the character names have been changed — but the source material provides essential context. In “The Last Detail,” it was Billy “Badass” Buddusky and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) tasked with hauling pipsqueak naval officer Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) across Virginia to a naval prison in Maine to do time on inane charges. Raunchy hijinks ensued, as the trio bonded and bickered over wartime troubles before discovering that they’re all prisoners of a faraway war they don’t care to fight.
“Last Flag Flying” finds versions of those characters grappling with similar frustrations a couple of decades later, in the midst of a new overseas conflict that once again impacts them on the home front. It channels Nicholson’s salty, irascible persona into another salty, irascible performance by Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealson, now wasting his days running a grimy bar in Virginia. The story begins in 2003, and he’s visited by a somber-looking, mustachioed Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), who’s basically the Larry Meadows character plus a few more decades of sad life experience. After his time in the brig, Doc found a modicum of happiness with a wife and child, but both have been taken away from him in the past year: His wife died from cancer, and his son was killed in action in Iraq a few days ago.
Dragging Sal to a nearby church, the pair finds “Mad Dog” Mueller — Young’s Mule, all grown up and mannered — preaching from the balcony. When Doc asks both men to join him on a journey to Arlington to retrieve his dead son’s body, it doesn’t take much cajoling before they hit the road — and memories of their rambunctious earlier adventures quickly stream back.
That’s right: Once “Last Flag Flying” sets its main pieces in play, it’s ostensibly a road-trip buddy movie, with a bunch of wistful middle-aged veterans roaming blue-collar America and wrestling with the military’s impact on their lives. Once they learn the true nature of the circumstances in which Doc’s son died, they decide to transport the body back home, aided by the dead soldier’s closest friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson).
It’s a meandering setup, and the chemistry is key: Cranston’s a natural at stumbling over his words as he spews smarmy asides, while Fishburne is a compelling paradox, his latent domineering attitude at odds with his new career’s religious standards. Carell, meanwhile, dials back his goofier instincts for a quietly stirring performance as a man so beaten down he looks like he’s on the verge of vanishing. Only through the developing strength of his peers does he regain the stability that has been drained from his life.
The movie works best when it observes the men engulfed in conversation. A standout bit finds the four sitting around a train car, reminiscing on losing their virginity; at one point, they crack up as they explicitly recall a scene from “The Last Detail.” It’s an endearing moment that invites the audience in — “The Last Detail” fans feel as though they’re visiting old friends, and others may appreciate an updated version of the sloppy masculinity Linklater explored in “Dazed and Confused,” with the boys all grown up.
Other aspects stumble by comparison. As a storyteller, Linklater treasures texture over plot, and some attempts at situational humor suffer from a clumsy, sitcom-ready aspect that’s beneath everyone involved. (One prolonged encounter that involves purchasing a cell phone may as well have a laugh track.) Meanwhile, the movie inhabits the perspective of its older characters so well that it falls short of grappling with its younger figure. As the face of a new generation, Washington is woefully underdeveloped and mainly exists to animate the old men’s earlier memories of their duty.
When it comes up short, the movie reveals a fundamental disconnect between Linklater’s narrative instincts and the ideas he wants to express. The outcome of this journey is inevitably a melancholic affair, and anyone expecting a traditional payoff will find that “Last Flag Flying” has no interest in playing that game. Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of laments, jostling, and consolations. It fizzles in the final minutes, but that’s the essence of a movie about men whose lives have never been about big payoffs.
“Every generation has their war,” sighs Sal. His not-so-merry band of vets may have survived theirs, but they’re casualties all the same, fated to wander a world that has moved on without them. Above all, “Last Flag Flying” illustrates a fascinating link between Ashby and Linklater, two filmmakers from different eras who both explore American society’s capacity to alienate the same people contributing to its identity. That gloomy proposition finds a fresh tone in Linklater’s hands, where angry, disillusioned people still manage to find room to laugh.
“Last Flag Flying” opened the 2017 New York Film Festival. It will be released November 3.