Few American independent filmmakers are in the sequel business, but Richard Linklater, the most experimental of mainstream directors and vice versa, has long been a fascinating exception to the rule.
His idea of a movie franchise — the decades-spanning romantic trilogy “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013) — is less an attempt at brand extension or box-office longevity than a casually profound meditation on time and its paradoxes. The raucous college shenanigans of “Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016) may not have been a direct or immediate response to the high-school high jinks of “Dazed and Confused,” but the near-spiritual connection it forged to that 1993 masterpiece felt both intuitive and undeniable.
“Last Flag Flying,” Linklater’s warm, ribald and elegiac new comedy about three Vietnam vets having a fateful reunion, is another sequel of sorts, albeit to a picture that he neither wrote nor directed. If you’ve seen “The Last Detail,” Hal Ashby’s 1973 classic about two U.S. Navy sailors escorting a third to a military prison, you will recognize elements of that story haunting this one, which revisits some of the same geographical and emotional terrain. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry. The memory of Ashby’s movie enriches the experience, but “Last Flag Flying” stands assuredly on its own.
Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan (who collaborated with Linklater on the script for “Last Flag Flying”), but unlike the books, the new movie deliberately blurs the connections between past and present. Character names have been tweaked and narrative specifics altered, to the point where the two stories could be taking place in parallel universes, both of them called America. But the bond between the two movies is more than plot-deep; it’s the rich sense of emotional continuity Linklater achieves that matters.
Larry Meadows, the sailor played by a baby-faced Randy Quaid in “The Last Detail,” has become Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a former Navy Corps medic whose downward-drooping mustache is like a distillation of purest tragedy. Richard “Mule” Mulhall, the gunner’s mate embodied by the late Otis Young, is now a veteran Marine and fiery Baptist preacher named Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who still lets out the occasional “Oohrah!” in between impromptu sermons.
No nominal similarities bind Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) to his “Last Detail” alter ego, perhaps because the name “Buddusky” is as inimitable as Jack Nicholson’s magnificently rascally performance. But Cranston does what he can, which is plenty; he unleashes a back-slapping, barn-storming, unshackled id of a performance. When we first meet Sal behind the counter of a bar in Norfolk, Va., we feel we know him instinctively: a hard drinker, a skirt chaser, the lovable, incorrigible life of the party.
Doc, the shy, sensitive widower who brings us into that bar, is a more mysterious figure, and it doesn’t take us long to realize why. More than Sal or even Richard, who got his leg shot up in Vietnam and now hobbles around on a cane, Doc has seen his share of personal anguish. He spent two years in the brig in Vietnam — for reasons that, it’s implied, should have implicated his friends too — and more recently lost his only child, Larry Jr., a 21-year-old Marine reported killed in action in Baghdad.
Now on his way to bury his son at Arlington National Cemetery, Doc wants his old buddies at his side — a request they can hardly refuse, despite Richard’s reluctance to leave his wife (Deanna Reed-Foster) and congregation behind. But the men’s plans change when they arrive at an Air Force base in Delaware and learn the true circumstances of Larry Jr.’s death, despite the efforts of a hard-headed colonel (a supremely punchable Yul Vazquez) to spin them in a more heroic direction.
Doc, his grief exploding into fury at the dishonesty of the official response, decides his son will have a civilian burial in his New Hampshire hometown and arranges to transport the body there by train. Larry Jr.’s loyal comrade Charlie (a fine J. Quinton Johnson) comes along for the ride, as do Richard and Sal, who spend most of the movie at each other’s throats, at times suggesting an angel and a devil respectively perched on Doc’s weary shoulders.
Linklater’s ear for the boisterous, colorful language of male bonding is almost without equal, and his grasp of the more explosive vernacular of male anger is no less acute. Beneath its off-color jokes and curse-laden rants, “Last Flag Flying” offers a pointed consideration of the hard choices that Americans of all generations have made to serve their country, and of the betrayal they have felt when that country has not risen to the level of their sacrifice.
Linklater has never been exactly shy about giving voice to his politics, and here, with post-9/11 anxiety running high and images of Saddam Hussein’s downfall blasting from every TV screen, he lets his characters cut loose, denouncing the corruption and futility of a U.S. military campaign with no apparent end in sight.
Of course, given all the traumas rattling the body politic at present, a flashback to the George W. Bush years may flood even the most unsympathetic viewer with a measure of nostalgia. (So will an amusingly digressive scene in which Sal, Richard and Doc stop by a shop selling mobile phones, which are suddenly all the rage.)
But if “Last Flag Flying” plays like a period piece, it never feels musty or dated. On the contrary, it joins a solid company of timeless American movies — a partial list would include “Flags of Our Fathers,” “The Messenger” and a handful of classic Vietnam War epics — that have saluted the courage of our troops while casting a hard, ambivalent eye on the government machinery that sends them into battle.
If that strikes you as an irresolvable contradiction, then so, too, might this movie’s mix of buoyant buddy comedy and blunt psychological realism. But it’s precisely those daring tonal juxtapositions that make “Last Flag Flying” so disarming: It’s a sharp critique of American bluster, but also a sincere and funny valentine to everyday American life. Working with cinematographer Shane Kelly, whose exterior shots of highways, train tracks and nighttime cityscapes are overlaid with the cheery, reassuring notes of Graham Reynolds’ score, Linklater turns shabby everyday interiors — a U-Haul truck, an Amtrak car, a budget motel room — into spaces of warm, intimate communion.
Next to the realist triumphs (“Boyhood” and “Before Sunset” among them) that have made Linklater one of the most genuinely independent American filmmakers working today, “Last Flag Flying,” with its leisurely road-movie structure and grumpy-old-men shtick, inevitably feels more schematic, more self-consciously written. You might roll your eyes whenever Richard, the most strident and least developed of the three protagonists, launches into another long-winded religious debate with Sal the swaggering atheist. But if their back-and-forth feels ladled on a bit thick, it also manages — like one piercing scene featuring a gem of a performance by Cicely Tyson — to get at the tough questions looming at the edges of the characters’ experience.
How much do we really want to know the real story? When is a consoling fiction preferable to an unbearably painful truth? Sometimes, as Sal makes furiously clear, you have to push back against authority and demand honest answers. In Richard’s estimation, you’re better off bending humbly to God’s will. The quietly shattering final word on the matter belongs to Doc, and “Last Flag Flying,” having spent two hours talking a good, sometimes great game, is wise enough to shut up and listen.
‘Last Flag Flying’
Rating: R, for language throughout, including some sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles