In ‘Last Flag Flying,’ an anti-war tale told again

  • Laurence Fishburne (from left) Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in a scene from “Last Flag Flying.” Lionsgate via AP

  • This image released by Lionsgate shows Bryan Cranston, from left, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne in a scene from "Last Flag Flying." (Wilson Webb/Lionsgate via AP) WILSON WEBB

Associated Press
Thursday, November 02, 2017

In this era of rampant sequelizing, has any filmmaker more playfully inverted the standard more-of-the-same monotony than Richard Linklater?

His Oscar-nominated Boyhood was, if nothing else, a compendium of life’s chapters, filmed – and lived – year after year. His Before trilogy reteamed Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, every nine years, for strolling encounters that compressed and marveled at the passage of time. His last film, Everybody Wants Some!! was billed as a “spiritual sequel” to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused – a college movie to bookend a high school one.

In Linklater Land, nothing is ever “rebooted.” The ripples of time are interesting enough, just as they are.

But Linklater’s latest, Last Flag Flying, is a still more unorthodox kind of sequel. It’s a kind of follow-up to Hal Ashby’s great 1973 film The Last Detail, in which two petty officers (Otis Young and a young, blistering Jack Nicholson) who are transporting a naive 18-year-old soldier (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Va., to the brig in New Hampshire, where he’s been sentenced to serve eight years for attempting to steal $40 from a charity box.

Ashby’s film was a real-time odyssey, glorious in its fiery expletives (courtesy of screenwriter Robert Towne) and seething in its outrage. As a film, it’s still alive, and Nicholson’s cackle still echoes.

Last Flag Flying is a journey mapped over the same terrain, but the central trio are now well into middle age and their reason for reunion, three decades later, is more melancholy still. Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell, in a version of Quaid’s character) gathers together his old Vietnam War buddies – Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, the Nicholson-esque, anti-authoritarian rabble-rouser of the bunch) and the Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, whose character draws partly from Young’s real life) – to bury his son, a Marine killed in Iraq.

The source of the tale is author Darryl Ponicsan’s 2003 novel, which was a direct sequel to his 1970 book, the one Ashby and Towne turned into a film. But Linklater’s film has severed some of those ties, changing the characters names and slightly shifting their background while still maintaining much of the connective tissue to The Last Detail. It is, in some sense, another “spiritual sequel.”