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Rigorously conventional ‘Last Flag Flying’ has few surprises

There is a pleasingness to the predictability of the film, which stars Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne as Vietnam veterans.

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Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne star in 'Last Flag Flying.'

Wilson Webb

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Richard Linklater is perhaps the most versatile and innovative filmmaker of his generation. With his early work “Slacker” and on through films as various as “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” the rotoscoped animated film “Waking Life,” the inexplicably underseen “Me and Orson Welles,” the great “Before” trilogy, and the intimate epic “Boyhood,” you never really know what he’s going to come up with next.

Which is why I was especially looking forward to “Last Flag Flying,” a film that, given the familiarity of its subject matter, cried out for a fresh approach. Set in 2003, it’s about three veterans who served together under fraught circumstances 30 years before in Vietnam – former Navy medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), and former marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). Doc’s only son, a marine, was killed early in the Iraq War, and, believing that the military has obscured the circumstances of his death, Doc rejects a burial at Arlington National Cemetery and embarks with his mates and his son’s casket on a circuitous journey up the Eastern Seaboard to Doc’s home in suburban New Hampshire. It’s a road movie and a buddy movie and a homefront movie all rolled into one.

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The surprise here is that Linklater, who collaborated on the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, has made a film with few surprises. It’s a rigorously conventional piece of work. This is not to say that it’s terrible – there is a pleasingness to its predictability, and a couple of sequences, such as the one in which Doc, against the strenuous wishes of the officer in charge, forces himself to look inside his mutilated son’s coffin, slice right through you. But there’s a safety net strung beneath this film that precludes any real risk-taking. “Last Flag Flying” could have been made by any number of proficient directors. “Boyhood” and the “Before” movies could only have been made by Linklater.

If Ponicsan’s name sounds familiar, it might be because his 2005 novel on which this film is based was a sequel of sorts to his novel “The Last Detail,” which was made into a muscular, crackerjack 1973 movie directed by Hal Ashby and scripted by Robert Towne. In that film, the Vietnam trio went by different names and was played by Jack Nicholson (now named Sal), Otis Young (now named Mueller), and Randy Quaid (now named Doc). It’s not necessary to have seen that earlier film in order to experience this one, and Linklater and his actors don’t really attempt to connect the two. With the exception of Cranston, who tries, with some success, to duplicate Nicholson’s swagger, none of the actors recall their predecessors. 

If Cranston steals most of his scenes, it’s because he has the juiciest lines. An aging hell-raiser, Sal is working as a bartender when, after three decades, the reticent, widowed Doc unexpectedly shows up and, after some delay, convinces both him and, soon enough, Mueller, once a roustabout and now a respected preacher, to accompany him on his grim errand. 

As one might expect, the three men are temperamentally poles apart. Doc is meek but resolute in his mission; Sal is profane and raucously unsentimental; Mueller is deeply religious. And as one might expect from this buddy genre, the men’s rough edges are beveled as they bond in their shared distaste for what the military – and the United States – have become. Regrets abound. We hear from them, “What happens when you catch your government lying to you?” Sal, in rare wistful mode, says, “We were all something once. Now we’re something else.”

In attempting to draw a straight line between the catastrophes of Vietnam and Iraq and the effect those incursions had on the homefront, “Last Flag Flying” is a bit out of its depth. Because it seems so generic, Linklater’s fleeting and fragmentary indictment of the George W. Bush-era invasion – the missing weapons of mass destruction, the ban on photos of US soldiers’ caskets, and all the rest – only serves to distract from the evolving bromance, which is only fitfully fueled by their politics, between the three vets.

The bromance often seems generic, too. Fishburne gives a highly nuanced performance, one of his best, as he allows us to see in this man of God flashes of the rogue he once was. But the movie ultimately must be defined by Doc, and we never really get inside his head. Carell has become a marvelous dramatic actor in recent years, and the fault here is not entirely his. He is being asked to play an Everyman, a humble soul who only wants what is right, and it’s all too righteously bland. The same, for all its incidental pleasures, could be said of the movie. Grade: B- (Rated R for language throughout, including some sexual references.)