Last Flag Flying Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated R. Opens Friday at Village Square.
Though the characters’ names have been changed, and director Richard Linklater (Boyhood, the Before trilogy, etc.) would prefer that audiences ignore the connection, Last Flag Flying is essentially a sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail, in which two Navy lifers escort a fellow sailor to the prison where he’ll serve a draconian eight-year sentence for stealing $40. Based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel, which was expressly about the same three men, Linklater’s film stars Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon, Laurence Fishburne as Richard Mueller and Steve Carell as Larry “Doc” Shepherd—new identities (they’re now Vietnam vets) for the roles previously played, respectively, by Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. Now decades older, they meet up again in 2003 when Doc, whose son has just been killed in Iraq, asks Sal and Richard to come to the funeral.
While Linklater’s decision to decouple Last Flag Flying from its predecessor makes sense, given that none of the original actors could realistically reprise their parts (Young died in 2001, and neither Nicholson nor Quaid has appeared onscreen in at least seven years), doing so robs the story of much of its poignancy. An enormous amount of guilt comes between Doc and the others, but its source remains mostly fuzzy unless one has seen The Last Detail and is aware of the journey they once shared, and its grim destination. Mostly, it’s depressive Carell squaring off against cynical, foulmouthed Cranston, with Fishburne caught in the middle. All three do solid work, but this film will be only a footnote in Linklater’s rich career.