Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater, 2017) 1½ out of 4 stars.
What could go wrong with three fine actors like Steve Carell (The Big Short), Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) and Laurence Fishburne (Contagion), in a film written and directed by a master of understated dialogue like Richard Linklater (Boyhood)? Carell plays Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, a Navy veteran who seeks out two former Marine buddies of his, alongside of whom he served in Vietnam, to help him bury his son, just killed in Iraq. It’s 2003, and Operation Iraqi Freedom is in full swing.
Doc, who also recently lost his wife, is understandably depressed, and shows up one day in the bar owned by Sal (Cranston), a loudmouthed blowhard who doesn’t immediately recognize him (it’s been almost 30 years). It seems that they share a complicated, fraught history, but since Doc has no one else, Sal will do. So will Mueller (Fishburne) – that’s Reverend Richard Mueller, now – whom Doc has tracked down to a church not far away. Though a married man of God now, he reluctantly agrees to help (well, his wife makes him), and so the stage is set for a gabfest of a road trip where some illuminating truths about life will surely be spoken. After all, Linklater is responsible for the “Before Trilogy,” in which he perfected the art of conversation. Sadly, our expectations are not met, and what transpires is instead, at a little over 120 minutes, extremely tedious and overburdened with exposition.
Let me revise my opening statement, as I do not always like Carell (witness his dreadful, somehow Oscar-nominated performance in Foxcatcher), nor do I find Fishburne that consistent (watch the sequels to The Matrix if you doubt me). Both are more than fine here, however, restrained and extremely watchable. It’s Cranston, whom I have loved ever since binge-watching all 6 seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad, who goes off the rails, though it’s not entirely his fault. His blustery Sal – he’s always got an angle, so of course he’s Italian, since the movie traffics in just about every cliché it can muster – irritates with every tick and Brooklyn-accented inflection he utters (I almost expected him to break out into “Youse guys!”). We’ve seen a guy just like him in every role ever played by Joe Pesci. Still, he manages to be the least of the film’s problems.
Instead, it’s the script, which has every plot point underlined in heavy marker and every beat written in all caps: THE GOVERNMENT LIED TO US. Yes, we get it. It’s a worthy point, but made less so through its obviousness. Linklater’s deft touch seems to have left him for this project. Here’s hoping another “Before” film is not far off.