‘Last Flag Flying’: A Hollywood Rarity

“Last Flag Flying” is a rarity these days: a big Hollywood movie with a strong Vietnam War theme. The movie, which came out in November 2017, has a big director—Richard (“Dazed and Confused”) Linklater; a Vietnam War veteran screenwriter, Darryl Ponicsan; and three A list Hollywood co-stars: Bryan (“Breaking Bad”) Cranston, Steve (“The Office”) Carell, and Lawrence Fishbourne. His many top-notch roles include playing Ike Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and (as a teenager), the skittish Swift Boat gunner, Tyone “Mister Clean” Miller, in Francis Ford Copolla’s epic Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now.”

“Last Flag” is a sequel of sorts to “The Last Detail,” a worthy 1973 movie featuring a manic Jack Nicholson as a jaded Navy salt assigned to escort a hapless sailor from Norfolk to a brig in Maine in the early seventies. The great Hal Ashby, best known for “Being There,” “Shampoo,” and “Coming Home,” directed that one. Robert Towne, who penned “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Chinatown,” and “Days of Thunder,” among many other movies, wrote the screenplay based on Ponicsan’s novel.

In “Last Flag,” which is set in 2003 and also based on a Ponicsan novel, former Vietnam War Marine Corps buddies Cranston and Fishbourne join Carell, their one-time corpsman, on a grim mission: escorting Carell’s son’s body from Dover AFB to his hometown cemetery in Maine. The young man was killed in the Iraq War.

I am a fan of “The Last Detail,” the novel and the movie, and was intrigued when I heard about this semi-sequel. But I missed it in the theaters, and just got around to watching it on DVD. The critics gave it generally positive reviews. My verdict is in that category.

The main positive about the movie is the acting. It’s just about as good as it gets, especially from the veteran actors playing the Vietnam veterans: Cranston, Carell, and Fishbourne. J. Quinton Johnson, playing a young Marine who served with Carell’s son and is detailed to accompany the body to its final resting place, also puts in a fine performance. The other supporting actors hold their own, as well.

Also on the plus said: The dialogue is above average and the plot is generally engaging.

My only significant negative is the character Bryan Cranston plays. I guess he’s meant to evoke Nicholson’s cynical, rule-breaking Navy chief in “The Last Detail.” But I never truly believed (or liked) Cranston’s pretty-much one-dimensional Sal Nealon, a cranky, heavy-drinking, loud-mouthed know-it-all. Nor did I believe the idea that he able to keep a throw-back neighborhood bar in Norfolk running despite his excessive drinking and non-existent people skills.

Carell, who proved in movies such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and as Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes” that he is much more than a comic actor, is quite believable as the kind-hearted former Navy Corpsman dealing with deep tragedy. Fishbourne, playing against type as a low-key man of god, ably and effectively brings that character to life.

The three men share a Vietnam War secret involving the death of a fellow Marine, but the script only nibbles around the edges of what happened and never spells out any significant details. The fellas run into bureaucratic military interference with their body-escorting mission that the script personifies in a tight-ass Marine officer. He’s played well by Yul Vasquez, but the script makes him look and sound (in the main) like a central-casting, tone-deaf Marine lifer.

The movie’s worth checking out for the acting alone on DVD or streaming into your TV. Just don’t expect a memorable filmic experience.

—Marc Leepson, January 30, 2019

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