Starring: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Running time: 125 mins
BBFC Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: January 26th 2018
Several films have taken Hollywood by surprise in recent years by finding an older audience than the male teen dudes the City of Angels believe are the only people who go to the pictures any more. From Wild Hogs to A Late Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, films with older characters having a crisis have actually found an audience – and a big one. Obviously, the quality is always going to be patchy. Wild Hogs, about three middle-aged men getting back on their Harleys, was juvenile and dull in the extreme, but it did prove not every Hollywood film needs to have nubile bodies in bikinis running around a beach.
Which brings us to Last Flag Flying. Like Wild Hogs it features three men who have seen better days, and features them hitting the road for one last adventure. However, the tone here is far more serious. Steve Carell’s son has been killed in action in the Iraq war in 2003, and, as his wife has died of breast cancer. With no one else to turn to, he looks up his two old buddies, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. They are much changed however. Cranston is an alcoholic running a grubby bar, while Fishburne is a preacher. Both are trying to forget their past. The marines want to bury Carell’s son in Arlington cemetery “like a true hero”, but he wants to take him back to New Hampshire and bury him in his graduation gown, not his uniform. So the three of them set off on an unlikely road trip.
Last Flag Flying is described as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to the 1973 picture The Last Detail, with both movies sourced from novels by author Darryl Ponicsan. For obvious reasons, the stars of the previous effort haven’t returned (Otis Young is dead, Jack Nicholson is retired, and Randy Quaid is currently suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown), inspiring Richard Linklater to shift characterisation slightly.
Here the three marines, veterans of the Vietnam War, have different ways of coping. Cranston is a womanising alcoholic; scruffy, mouthy, with a determination to enjoy his life and no filter. Fishburne has not only found God, he apparently has barely mentioned his past to his handsome wife. He is a recovering alcoholic who carries his Bible around with his limp. Carell is the quiet one of the three; the one who ended up doing two years in prison for crimes all three of them are guilty of, but who carries no grudge. Clearly a broken man – with two deaths inside a year – he is brittle and desperate for some sort of support from his old pals, even ones as useless as these.
His son’s death in Iraq gives writer/director Richard Linklater the perfect structure to discuss war, morality and the meaningless of young men fighting overseas. Carell barely says anything through the whole film, but a speech near the end, comparing ‘Nam and Iraq, is genuinely moving. “They weren’t a threat” he whispers, “why were we there?” As Fishburne’s preacher says, there are no answers, only questions.
If this all sounds heavy, Linklater’s script belies that. For the most part Last Flag Flying is remarkably funny, mainly thanks to a powerhouse performance from Cranston. He never shuts up, sometimes talking himself into a corner, and often says the wrong thing but behind it all there is a well-meaning, kind man who recognises his friend’s pain. It’s a clever switch, as Cranston takes what is essentially the comic role, and Carell, a fine comic actor, the serious one. It works a treat. Fishburne is great as the pious, pompous preacher, described as “old and boring” by Cranston but who is the rock that Carell needs. Their chemistry is genuine, warm, very witty and often moving.
Linklater made his name making indie-style films, with the odd gimmick, but here he plays it admirably straight. There is the odd shot of the night skyline of a city, otherwise visually it is downbeat. Set in 2003, he reminds us of how different the world was even then – he gets much humour out of these old men discovering the wonders of the internet, and even more amazing, the mobile phone. “How did I ever live without this”, Cranston bellows at one point.
He lets his script do the talking, and if occasionally it is over-written it never feels anything less than genuine.
Overall Verdict: Linklater has written a state-of-the-nation address which hits every target. It is funny, poignant and most of all moving, and asks big questions about the USA in 2003 which are still relevant to today. Powerful stuff.
Reviewer: Mike Martin