Last Flag Flying is a distant cinematic cousin to the classic 1973 Hal Ashby movie The Last Detail, starring Jack Nicholson as a Marine escorting a convicted prisoner (Randy Quaid) to military prison.
Both are based on books by Darryl Ponicsan, both are based on characters who serve or who have served in the military, and both play out as episodic road trips that mix laughs and melancholy moments.
In Last Flag Flying, the emphasis is on the melancholy — a Navy corpsman and Vietnam veteran (Steve Carell) has learned that his son has been killed in Iraq, and makes unannounced visits to a pair of Marine Corps buddies, asking them to help retrieve and bury the body.
Actually to call them buddies may be overstating things. Doc (Carell) has had no contact with these men since his dishonorable discharge three decades earlier (the movie is set in 2003), related to a battlefield incident that is never specified for which the other two men escaped blame.
Doc finds Sal (Bryan Cranston) running a saloon in New York, and the two track down Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) at his country church, where he is now a pastor. Sal is enthusiastic about the trip, Mueller less so — whatever he lost in war he managed to find in the service of God, and reminders of his combat days leave him unsettled.
There is a small and rather moving scene of Mueller being persuaded (or perhaps ordered) by his wife (Deanna Reed Foster) to accompany Doc, politely but firmly reminding him of his Christian duty in this case. It's the first time, but not the last, that the movie is stolen from the three leads, whose chemistry feels uncertain throughout.
Sal is meant to be a charming Irish-American chatterbox, but Cranston is over-broad — or his lines are under-charming — and he comes off a loudmouth adorned unconvincingly with henna tattoos. Carell, meanwhile, tries to paint Doc as a quiet and introspective man, and instead gives him no personality at all.
Last Flag Flying lacks the casual, lived-in realism you usually find in a Linklater film. You don't buy the men as long-separated pals, and so you don't really buy the premise — the connection that caused Doc to seek out these men is not visible on screen.
Still, Last Flag Flying gets a jumpstart at its midpoint, when the men retrieve the body from Dover Air Base, and meet a comrade (J. Quinton Johnson) of the slain Marine, who in a few touching scenes introduces Doc to the man he never saw his son become.
The movie comes to life again when the men stop in Boston to visit the elderly mother (Cicely Tyson) of a fallen soldier, when the tension between the movie's disillusionment and its humanity dissolves in one well-judged moment.