Last Flag Flying review – Richard Linklater's treacly trip goes nowhere

Bryan Cranston leads a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail that squanders its promise with a heartwarmer-by-numbers script

A sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 American new wave classic The Last Detail from the director of Boyhood? That should theoretically be something special. But what a bland and sugary texture there is to this very conservative, undemanding oldster roadtrip.

It’s a movie with no intention of attempting anything like the original’s radical fire – or that of Richard Linklater’s own best work and in its final 10 minutes surrenders what few anti-authority credentials it had claimed at the beginning. Linklater is a director who can do a range of genres, and there need be no solemn cinephile law against him making a straight-up heartwarmer. But this is bafflingly weak. Perhaps, like Gus Van Sant, Linklater can shift from intensity to generic blandness.

Strictly speaking, Last Flag Flying is not a direct sequel to The Last Detail, rather an adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel, itself intended as a follow-up to his 1970 book on which Ashby’s classic was based: about two sailors showing their terrified young comrade a good time before he goes to military prison. The three men in this film are not precisely the same: each is a variation on the earlier character theme, with different names and details, though their personalities are consistent. Now it’s Bryan Cranston in Jack Nicholson’s role of the bigmouth, still a pain-in-the-ass, now running a bar. Laurence Fishburne plays Mueller (originally played by Otis Young), now a preacher. And Steve Carell plays poor, shy Doc, now an ex-prisoner himself, once unforgettably played by Randy Quaid. Doc had a son in the US Marines who has been killed in Iraq and for reasons he can hardly articulate, Doc wants to reconnect with these two men and go on a journey with them to pick up his son’s body.

As it happens, Cranston plays Sal very capably and plausibly – more plausibly, perhaps, than Nicholson might have at the same stage. Fishburne has presence and sympathy and Carell is fine, although he strays into his Brick-from-Anchorman persona when he has to unwind and nerdily laugh along with the guys.

Yet the narrative arc is just so sentimental and predictable: Mueller begins to leave behind the stiff preacher routine and becomes the guy they knew and loved. Cynical, anti-religious Sal gets – or appears to get – a tough integrity in dealing with the pompous military brass. But when it comes to the funeral itself, that defiance evaporates. Is this where the journey has been leading? A moderate, timid, blinkered piece of work.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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