It's the unauthorized sort-of sequel to cinema's first great f-bomb: Richard Linklater's serial-numbers-filed-off follow-up to 1973's The Last Detail takes the renamed, rejiggered characters up to the early Iraq War, in the winter of 2003.
Robert Towne and Hal Ashby's adaptation of the Darryl Ponicsan novel had two swabbies (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) escorting a naval prisoner through the crappier parts of the Eastern Seaboard to the stockade in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Their prisoner is a backward kid (Randy Quaid) who impulsively stole some loose money from a charity dish and learned the lesson that "military justice is to justice what military music is to music"—he got eight years for nicking $40. The two sailors felt for the kid and decided to turn the journey into a moveable feast.
Nicholson's Billy "Badass" Buddusky's character is here called Sal Nealon, an old Marine (what a horror for Buddusky, so avid to fist-fight jarheads). In Last Flag Flying, he's out of the service with a steel plate in his head—the sodden, amiable owner and operator of a bar and grill where the grill doesn't work. Played by Brian Cranston, Nealon gets an unexpected visit from his old service buddy "Doc," the ex-prisoner (Steve Carell at his very best, his smallest, his saddest). The man needs some help: his only son, killed in Iraq, is going to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and he wants a friend by his side.
Their fellow hellion from Vietnam Nam days is now standing in a Baptist church pulpit—Mulhall in the earlier film, now called Mueller. He's resolutely opposed to joining the two friends, particularly the no-good Nealon, but the pastor is shamed into the journey by his wife. Laurence Fishburne is generally a bit too stately, but he's a delight here, deep in his comfortable years, looking as if a belief in divine providence has gone straight to his belly. He's acting with a cane, too, and what actor doesn't love that? Mueller sizes Nealon up: "You were a hazard as a young man. Now you're an old fool."
The three are escorted by Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), an Iraq vet from West Oakland; they have a change of plans and decide to take the deceased son north to the cemetery in Doc's small town. If there's a belief that there's three kinds of women, maid, mother, crone, the three old veterans here are bachelor, widower, married man—bringing a kind of symmetry to their misadventures...as when a nervous counter person at the U-Haul dealership, ever-alert for bad Muslims, mishears Mueller's name as "Mullah."
This follow-up to one of the most honest movies about the serviceman's life has all the integrity of its source. And the profanity that once shocked the studio (65 uses of the F-word in The Last Detail—somebody counted them) is now a standard part of cinema.
Linklater walks the line here well: honoring an experience that cannot be understood by the civilian, while recognizing the dishonesty that obscures the experience. He notes the pettiness, the unspeakable circumstances, and the harmless lies that are, of course, not at all harmless.
Unlike the case of Coppola's Gardens of Stone (1987), Linklater hasn't gone around and around the contradiction of an anti-war movie that's proud of the troops, like a man trying to find a corner in a round room. Nealon sums up: "Men make the wars, and the wars make the men."
Cranston recalls Nicholson with an East Coast drawl and conversational bizarreness; it's a grand, warm performance. Like Buddusky, Nealon has a fearless physicality, a refusal to be shamed or cowed. (One of many hilarious moments: Nealon trying to pick up a not-completely-uninterested girl with a discourse on how hard for it is for a young man to get a car, and some money for a date...whereas, with an older man...)
Last Flag Flying sums up the fragility, the fun and the absolute mess that all who are born male end up in together. Linklater's taste for eccentricity makes him a natural for road trip movies. It's sadly comic, with the winter light here during this last of December and the tawdry old Christmas decorations lining the road to the funeral.