When looking at the total body of work of writer/director/producer Richard Linklater, it would appear that this is a guy that relishes on throwing the movie going public constant curveballs. From the indie darling “Slacker,” (which people like Kevin Smith cite as a film that helped them become a filmmaker to begin with) to the “Before” trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, cult hits like “Dazed and Confused” and “SubUrbia” and the Oscar darling “Boyhood,” his diversity in storytelling is one that makes sure that can challenge both himself and the audience. When I found out that his latest venture was adapting and directing Darryl Poniscan’s novel (which Poniscan also helped with the screenplay) “Last Flag Flying,” I was definitely intrigued by yet another left turn for Linklater.
In this film set near the end of 2003, Steve Carell plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, who shows up at the bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) after not seeing each other for almost thirty years since they served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam together. With shared experiences that they are not sure they want to talk about, they seek out their third running buddy from those days in Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is now a reverend in a small church. As they are all catching up with each other, Shepherd drops on them his reason for getting together: his son (a Marine himself) has been killed overseas, and he wants Mueller and Nealon to come with him to not only help bury him but along the way heal themselves and each other.
This film was a pleasant surprise for me. The vibe that I got from the one sheet and reading about it was one where I thought would venture into darkness and politics quickly and for the duration of the two hours that it would be on the screen. While there is not much more than a smattering of preachiness here, it is Poniscan’s story of these three characters that is relied on to keep things moving, as it should be. These three actors are such powerhouses in their own rights that their work together makes this story even more powerful and even fun. There are some great comedic moments, driven mostly by Cranston’s character, that keep the balance of “Last Flag Flying” in perfect harmony with its drama and emotion.
There is also a “name to watch” here in J. Quinton Johnson. Mainly known for being one of the victims of the horrid “Dirty Dancing” experiment earlier this year, don’t let that fool you. This young man, as the best friend of Shepherd’s son who was there with him when he passed, shows amazing emotional range and compassion that shines through even as he shares the frame with some of the biggest actors of the last three decades. His performance is truly impressive, and I look for much bigger things for him in the future.
Amazon Studios continues to gain steam with their cinematic choices, and along with Lionsgate, they have another winner with “Last Flag Flying”. Releasing over Veterans’ Day weekend, this is a very respectful and engaging telling of a tale of our service men and women both current and former that runs the gambit of emotion and is truly a great way to spend a couple of hours in any form.