Last Flag Flying is a character piece, and it's a simple and moving one, mainly thanks to the strong turns from the three leads.
It's 2003. Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) enters a bar, has a beer, and then prompts the barman to remember who he is. The barman is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), and he soon realises that Larry is one of his army buddies from his days in the Vietnam war. This meeting isn't accidental. Larry asks Sal to accompany him on a little trip, which is how they end up in a church, listening to a sermon being delivered by Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who was also their army buddy. Larry then asks both men to accompany him on a longer trip. He has to attend the funeral of his son, a soldier shot while on duty over in Iraq.
Although it does nothing spectacular, and many may complain that it feels as if it does nothing at all, I found Last Flag Flying to be a quietly moving and altogether enjoyable viewing experience. The three central characters are very different people, but it's easy to see the bonds that join them together (even if there are times when they themselves can't see them).
Director Richard Linklater allows the leads to grow together organically, estranged friends who recapture their comfort and rhythms as the film plays out. He's helped by a script, co-written between himself and Darryl Ponicsan (from the novel by Ponicsan), that nails the central aspect of each character in their first few scenes before starting to flesh them out. I discovered, after watching the film, that these characters are supposed to be the same characters featured in The Last Detail, but it seems clear that Linklater was more interested in the main themes being explored than delivering a direct sequel to that story (I guess, considering the fact that three characters have had their names changed in this translation to the screen).
The performances are all excellent. Cranston is a bag of crudity and antagonism, and Fishburne is quiet and calm until pushed too far, but the standout is Carell, who impresses from his very first scene through to the affecting finale. J. Quinton Johnson is also very good, playing a young soldier who served with Sheperd's son, Deanna Reed-Foster is enjoyable in her limited screentime, and Yul Vazquez is a Colonel who gets his cool demeanor deliberately ruffled by Cranston's character.
While not a film that will stand out from Linklater's filmography, nor one that may be that celebrated or even remembered in a few years time, this is worth your time. Three actors get to do some damn fine work together, and sometimes that is all it takes to make an enjoyable movie-watching experience.
You can pick up The Last Detail here, to tide you over until Last Flag Flying is on shiny disc.Region free.