Starring Bryan Cranston. Rated 14A
In Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail—a key film of the naturalistic 1970s—two sailors are tasked with bringing a very minor miscreant from San Diego all the way to Portsmouth, Maine, where the navy brig awaits him. Robert Towne’s pitch-perfect script was based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, and it’s no coincidence that in Last Flag Flying, Ponicsan’s screenplay (taken from his own recent novel) picks up in Portsmouth, in 2003, with a sailor who spent time in that hole before settling into a dull life as a clerk at the same station.
Steve Carell plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, the mild-mannered ex-sailor in question, who learns that his son has been killed during the new war in Iraq. Also a recent widower, he responds by seeking two slightly older ex-Marines he served with in Vietnam. One’s an alcoholic barkeeper named Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and the other is troublemaker-turned-preacher Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne)—called Mueller the Mauler in Saigon, for his sexcapades, not combat skills.
This trio roughly equates to that threesome from 30 years earlier, with cast leader Cranston subbing for Jack Nicholson’s “Badass” Buddusky, Fishburne evoking the self-contained Mulhall of lesser-known Otis Young (who himself went on to become a pastor), and Carell a tad slow on the uptake, like Randy Quaid’s goofily hapless Meadows. Except for Cranston’s effortful attempts to channel Nicholson by way of Robert De Niro (“Hey, I’m half Italian,” Sal yells at one point), resemblances end there. Where the first movie captured young men adrift in the sea change of American life during one pointless war, this one settles for an acting exercise in which three experienced players simply lock into fairly superficial aspects of their characters, yielding platitudes and punch lines, not genuine insights.
Richard Linklater, who usually works from his own scripts, often in concert with his main actors, would seem to be a good fit for the material. But for a long two hours, he seemingly surrenders to a sort of bland nostalgia that encompasses dull cinematography, sterile acoustic-guitar music, formless scenes that last too long, and exposition that often makes little real sense—all better suited to cable-TV drama than to an honest exploration of America at another lethal crossroads. Its details don’t last.