Last Flag Flying, review – undemanding buddy movie flies at half-mast

Three Vietnam vets reunite for a tragic rail trip against the backdrop of the Iraq War. But Richard Linklater’s latest offering doesn’t quite stay on track

Richard Linklater is surely one of the most prominent American directors right now. His 1991 debut Slacker helped kickstart modern US indie cinema, and, with his trilogy of Before films and the luminous Boyhood, he has made some of the defining work of the past 20 years.

And yet he remains strangely out of time. His movies are full of complicated characters discussing complicated things, sympathetically attuned to the lives of ordinary folk; quietly political and engineered with a masterly but unflashy sense of craft. Linklater’s work owes more to the golden age of American cinema in the late 1960s and ’70s than the anonymous product churned out today.

Which raises hopes for Last Flag Flying. Set in the early 2000s, it owes its greatest debt to that earlier era of filmmaking. It’s about three ageing Vietnam vets – played by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell – transporting the body of a soldier killed in the Iraq War through the northeastern states in the grip of winter.

It’s co-written by Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the original novel). Ponicsan also wrote the novel on which the 1973 film The Last Detail was based, about two Vietnam servicemen carrying human cargo across northeastern states in the grip of winter. The Last Detail is a masterpiece, a lyrical blend of anti-war politics and earthy social realism. If Linklater’s new film isn’t exactly a remake, it makes no effort to escape its influence either.

But Last Flag Flying disappoints. By comparison to The Last Detail, it’s bland and underpowered, with a script that lacks the earlier movie’s poetry or razory wit. And on its own terms it struggles. Last Flag Flying is firmly planted in the undemanding lowlands of the buddy movie. Carell plays Doc, a quietly spoken man with sensible clothes and a homely moustache. In the opening scene he reunites with Sal (Cranston), his fellow Marine from his days in ‘Nam, and together with this hard-drinking bar-owner he tracks down another Navy pal: Richard (Fishburne), presently a recovered alcoholic clergyman.

Gags about mobile phones would have felt stale back in 2003, and the less said about reminisces of the whorehouses in Vietnam the better

Doc has just learnt that his Marine son has been killed in Iraq, and he’s called on his old buddies to escort the body back to New Hampshire by train. Along the way the men reflect on an old war that formed them and rail against a new one that claimed one of their sons.

The journey is tough: a solemn pile-up of contrivances, interrupted by mishandled light relief. Gags about mobile phones would have felt stale back in 2003, and the less said about reminisces of the whorehouses in Vietnam the better.

Only occasionally does it snap into focus, notably a visit the men make to the mother of a soldier whose death they feel some responsibility for. The scene is Linklater at his best. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about Last Flag Flying is that it makes me excited for what this remarkable director does next.

Last Flag Flying is out from January 26