If you’re planning to see “Last Flag Flying,” the new movie from director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” the “Before Sunrise” trilogy), you have a homework assignment, one that’s recommended but not required. It is to first watch “The Last Detail,” the 1973 Hal Ashby film that can be found on most streaming platforms for the price of a cheap beer.
It’s not an arduous assignment. On the contrary, “Detail” is based on a 1970 novel by Darryl Ponicsan and it features one of Jack Nicholson’s finest early performances — before the rewards for playing Jaaack were apparent — as a navy lifer transporting an unlucky young swab (Randy Quaid) to the brig. Ponicsan wrote a 2012 sequel catching up with the characters decades later, and he has co-written the new film’s screenplay with Linklater, changing the names and some details of the backstory because, let’s face it, who’s seen “The Last Detail” lately?
Well, you can. And you should, since “Last Flag Flying” is a touching but fairly clumsy effort that only acquires the depths of sadness and resilience it needs if you have the memory of the earlier film shoring it up. It proves that second-hand grace is, after all, still grace.
Nicholson’s character, Billy “Badass” Buddusky, has now aged and been rebottled into Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), the ex-Marine owner of a seedy bar in Norfolk, Va., and still a foulmouthed live wire with moth-eaten charm and poor impulse control. The year is 2003, and one night a sad sack at the end of the bar reveals himself to be Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), that kid who Sal escorted to the jail in Portsmouth, N.H., all those years ago.
Doc needs Sal’s help for a particular mission and he needs the presence, too, of Sal’s fellow escort, a former hard-living reprobate who’s now the right Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, stepping lightly into the shoes of the late Otis Young’s original character). They’re three men whose Vietnam experiences and collisions with VA bureaucracy have left them damaged, guilt-ridden, and only partially rebuilt. That Doc’s son has just died a soldier’s death in Iraq, and that Doc wants the two other men by his side for the burial, anchors one of the movie’s understated themes. Men may learn but their governments and leaders never do.
The trip turns out to be longer and more quixotic than expected, involving rental vans, trains, multiple delays, and a visit from Homeland Security. “Last Flag Flying” is a road movie that retraces the steps of “The Last Detail” with a few ironic changes — instead of visiting a whorehouse in Boston’s old Combat Zone, the characters drop into a cellphone store in midtown Manhattan — and while there are many comic moments, the film is one of the more intensely hushed experiences you’ll have in a theater this year, at times nearly to the point of inertia. It’s a veteran’s movie, a eulogy for two generations of warriors and the country that sent them off to die.
Cranston, to his great credit, doesn’t try to “do” Nicholson but rather works from Ponicsan’s blueprint to build Sal from the ground up as a figure of rebellious humor and barely banked rage. “He’s old but he’s dangerous,” warns a tightly wound Colonel (Yul Vazquez), and you can see Sal’s face light up with the joy of sticking it to a superior officer one more time.
Fishburne carries his own pop baggage from when he was 16-year-old Larry Fishburne playing a Vietnam soldier in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”; here he’s cast as the weary, wise angel to Sal’s devil. The shoulders they stand on belong to Carell’s Doc, the one-time naïf who has long since made his peace with the screwing-over life has given him. The actor has rarely been this gentle or touching, even when the screenplay gives Doc a couple of duff speeches in which he has to explain What It All Means for the folks in the back row. At such times, you miss Robert Towne’s allusive knack for dialogue — the way characters can show but not tell — in “The Last Detail.”
Also quietly impressive is J. Quinton Johnson (from Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”) as a platoon-mate of Doc’s son, and, yes, that is the 92-year-old Cicely Tyson (“Sounder”) as the mother of one of Sal’s and Mueller’s fallen fellow Marines, resolving for the two, at least briefly, whether a heroic lie is preferable to the uglier truth.
In previous films, Linklater has followed lovers through three decades of relationship and a boy from childhood to maturity. It’s possible that what attracted him to this project was the chance to revisit beloved movie characters many years later, to see (once again) how time treats humans caught in its slipstream and to see what those humans might say about where we are now. Their message isn’t new but it remains fresh: What men returning from war understand better than anything are the lies that sent them there.
LAST FLAG FLYING
Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on Ponicsan’s novel. Starring Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson. At Kendall Square. 124 minutes. R (language throughout, including some sexual references).