A lot of good will built up throughout the two hours of Last Flag Flying is undone in the final moments. It’s disappointing because if there was just a little bit of faith in the audience instead of what feels like a need to pander to them, it would’ve been a much better movie. As it stands, it’s still pretty good but after the peaks of director and co-writer Richard Linklater’s oeuvre (Boyhood, The Before series, Waking Life, Dazed and Confused), Flag comes off a bit trite and simple.
Steve Carrell is Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a Vietnam vet whose son was just killed in the Iraq War circa 2003 and he’s on a mission to see him buried. Doc enlists two old marine buddies to travel with him – Sal (Bryan Cranston), a boozy, loudmouth bar owner, and the reformed Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now a reverend. What follows is a bit of a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles style farce performed completely straight. There are some great conversations and the interplay between the three main characters is enjoyable, but with a plot this thin, and characters this strong I was just left with a desire for more.
The history between the characters is referenced a lot, but there’s a lingering issue from their past, something that Doc ended up doing time for, and Sal and Mueller have residual guilt over, but there’s never any deeper explanation or detail offered. It’s frustrating. Cranston is clearly having a ball, relishing his exuberant lout of a character, a nice foil for Carrell’s mild, mumbly Doc. Fishburne’s Mueller falls somewhere in the middle. All three are really good, and the movie succeeds mostly because of their energy and chemistry.
Linklater is stronger at pulling great performances out of actors than he is at visual dynamics, and this is no exception. His biggest strength is his way of capturing moments between characters that feel real and whole, and while that is mostly true here, the few moments that ring false really stand out. When the three leads get cell phones (in 2003!) and are completely flabbergasted by the entire concept, it comes off entirely too forced. The emotional highs are hit though, and the ending, entirely by design, hammers away any hint of subtlety with a forced sentimentality that is as unnecessary as it is unearned.
My Grade – C+