Review: 'Last Flag Flying' tells anti-war tale again

In this era of rampant sequelizing, has any filmmaker more playfully inverted the standard more-of-the-same monotony than Richard Linklater?

His Oscar-nominated "Boyhood" was, if nothing else, a compendium of life's chapters, filmed — and lived — year after year. His "Before" trilogy reteamed Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, every nine years, for strolling encounters that compressed and marveled at the passage of time. His last film, "Everybody Wants Some!!" was billed as a "spiritual sequel" to Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" — a college movie to bookend a high school one.

In Linklater Land, nothing is ever "rebooted." The ripples of time are interesting enough, just as they are.

But Linklater's latest, "Last Flag Flying," is a still more unorthodox kind of sequel. It's a kind of follow-up to Hal Ashby's great 1973 film "The Last Detail," in which two petty officers (Otis Young and a young, blistering Jack Nicholson) who are transporting a naive 18-year-old soldier (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Virginia, to the brig in New Hampshire, where he's been sentenced to serve eight years for attempting to steal $40 from a charity box.

Ashby's film was a real-time odyssey, glorious in its fiery expletives (courtesy of screenwriter Robert Towne) and seething in its outrage. As a film, it's still alive, and Nicholson's cackle still echoes.

"Last Flag Flying" is a journey mapped over the same terrain, but the central trio are now well into middle age and their reason for reunion, three decades later, is more melancholy still. Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell, in a version of Quaid's character) gathers together his old Vietnam War buddies — Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, the Nicholson-esque, anti-authoritarian rabble-rouser of the bunch) and Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, whose character draws partly from Young's real life) — to bury his son, a Marine killed in Iraq.

The source of the tale is author Darryl Ponicsan's 2003 novel, which was a direct sequel to his 1970 book, the one Ashby and Towne turned into a film. But Linklater's film has severed some of those ties, changing the characters' names and slightly shifting their background while still maintaining much of the connective tissue to "The Last Detail." It is, in some sense, another "spiritual sequel."

Why distance "Last Flag Flying" from "The Last Detail"? Well, not everyone is so familiar with Ashby's film, and perhaps more to the point: Filling the shoes of Nicholson is a fool's game, if ever there was one.

But while the film's gentle, rolling humanism is indeed its own, "The Last Detail" stands like an unspoken island around which the movie flows. The balance of trio is off, too. Cranston, a very gifted performer, is acting like a funny live-wire while Nicholson simply was one. Carell, who can render innocence as well as anyone, gives a performance that feels hollowed out by its grieving solemnity. Fishburne, never one unsure of his footing, alone feels in the right place.

And while "Last Flag Flying" is missing the edge of Towne's dialogue, it's a deeply thoughtful film about how so much changes (in one scene the guys buy cell phones, marveling at the invention) while so much stays the same. It might be 30 years later, but time hasn't altered the injustice for the foot soldiers enlisted to fight ill-conceived wars. When the guys arrive in Washington to see the body of Doc's son, they soon find themselves disagreeing with a hardline Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez) who disapproves of Doc's decision to bury his son at home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, instead of at Arlington National Cemetery. The colonel and his tone are, to Sal, exceedingly familiar.

There are scenes here that pulsate with anti-war passion, sometimes a little too obviously, sometimes effectively. But despite its flaws, the film gathers an honest force as it burrows deeper into its characters as the group (along with a current Marine played by a memorable J. Quinton Johnson) makes its way up the coast. It's a trip that glimmers with both mournful reflection on the human cost of war and the abiding camaraderie among soldiers.

That "Last Flag Flying" is a sequel, with future installments sure to come, is the point. Times change. New wars are fought. The same kids pay the price.

"Last Flag Flying," an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language throughout including some sexual references." Running time: 124 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.