A spiritual sequel to Hal Ashby's 1973 drama "The Last Detail," Richard Linklater's "Last Flag Flying" is -- like that earlier film -- based on a novel by Daryl Ponicsan. The follow-up novel keeps the same characters, and though the author shares co-screenwriting credit on the film along with Linklater, the names have been changed, presumably in an effort to let the new film forge its own identity.
In 2003, Larry 'Doc' Shepherd (Steve Carell) reunites with two former buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who he served with in Vietnam. Larry has received word that his son, Larry Jr., was killed in action in Iraq, and he enlists his old friends to accompany him to collect the body.
Larry Jr.'s due to receive a hero's burial at Arlington, and at first that's where the men are headed. But as circumstances change, Larry eventually decides to bring his son back to their home in New Hampshire to be buried alongside his mother. The majority of the film takes the form of a road movie, as the three friends reconnect with one another over the course of their winding trek back to Larry's home.
Director Richard Linklater has a talent for capturing male camaraderie (see last year's excellent "Everybody Wants Some!!"), and the film is at its best when we're simply allowed to watch the three men talk and bounce off one another.
Carell delivers an excellent, understated performance, and it's hard not to be moved by Larry's soft-spoken grief. Fishburne is also quite good, though his character gets the least development of the three. I'm as surprised as anyone to say Cranston is the weakest link. His was the character played by Jack Nicholson in "The Last Detail," and too often his performance feels like a forced Nicholson impression. J. Quinton Johnson gives solid supporting work as a friend of Larry Jr.'s who's ordered to help the men transport the body.
Aiming for humor and heartbreak, the film delves into the toll military combat takes on service members, as well as weighty ideas of patriotism, heroism, and the lies about each that get told for reasons both noble and selfish. Along the way, there's a number of moving scenes, and Linklater knows how to underplay moments that might have come across as mawkish. But there's a feeling that the filmmaker might have gone deeper with the subject, leading to the disappointing sense that "Last Flag Flying" had the potential to be something even greater.