Last Flag Flying arrives in cinemas armed with everything a new release could hope for: a simple but effective concept, high-profile cast and an Oscar-nominated director helming the project. This abundance of talent makes the film’s shortcomings all the more baffling, with Last Flag Flying ultimately delivering an oddly flat road movie that fails to provide either the ‘bitter’ or ‘sweet’ that it so clearly strives towards.
Directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood), the film acts as a sequel of sorts to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973) and sees Vietnam veterans Doc, Sal and Richard reunited in 2003 to bury Doc’s son, recently killed in the Iraq war. Since the 1970s, the trio have settled in disparate corners of the US and so travel across the country to retrieve the body and bury it in Doc’s home state, along the way reliving good times and repressing bad ones. Steve Carell plays Doc, the youngest of the men and the quietest, shaken by the recent loss of both his son and, prior to that, his wife. Laurence Fishburne is Richard, renowned for his rabble-rousing ways in the Marines, now settled down as a Baptist preacher. Bryan Cranston rounds out the set as Sal, a hard-drinking, wise-cracking archetype who is given charm and, quite frankly, made bearable by Cranston’s hearty performance.
The framework of a thoughtful, poignant and funny road movie is present at the outset of Last Flag Flying and yet, despite its hefty 125-minute running time, Linklater never manages to flesh out the characters and deliver on its promise. The film feels as if it lacks a home, hovering somewhere between cheesy made-for-TV and Hollywood blockbuster. For example, the jangly, guitar-driven score, the equivalent of musical wallpaper, would sound more at home accompanying a radio advert for double glazing. The dialogue sounds half-baked at times, not cringingly bad, but suspiciously ‘phoned-in’ especially in the context of a script co-written by Linklater.
The interplay between the stars is adequate, bordering on good. Richard and Sal supply the angel and devil respectively, guiding Doc through his grief, although this is represented in a clunky manner, with Sal’s temptation literally coming in the form of handfuls of sweets that he offers to other characters in seemingly every scene. Carell is understated, almost to a fault, but is certainly believable as a man who has lost everything that has defined him for decades. Fishburne is given relatively little to do. There are disappointingly few tangible crackles of chemistry, although one scene where the three men regale their Marine escort with tales of ‘back in my day’ tomfoolery, provided a welcome alleviation from the low-key proceedings thus far.
The thematic inconsistency of the film further suggests that Last Flag Flying doesn’t know where it sits, as the narrative flits here-and-there between viewpoints, opinions and even genres. First, the film is an anti-war movie that sees its characters appalled by similarities between the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. This represents pretty low-hanging fruit when it comes to anti-war narrative, but it is hampered by the fact that it is quickly abandoned in favour of a pseudo-caper storyline, complete with a pallid, spitting caricature of an army general and involving Sal and Richard being mistaken for terrorists. Next, and perhaps most head-scratching of all, is a jolt into misjudged, going in Style-style gags about not understanding technology or modern music.
Through all of this, Last Flag Flying is never outright ‘bad’. It denies you the right to rage and gnash your teeth, instead the quality of the cast and director ensure that the film settles in the cinematic hinterland of ‘average’ and ‘forgettable’. Last Flag Flying is a comedy that fails to be consistently funny, a road movie that lacks significant character development and thematically trips over its own feet. Middle-of-the-road.
Last Flag Flying is set for release on the 26th January, 2018.