'Last Flag Flying' film review: Meditation on war & duty nearly derailed by filler, banter
The disappointment of “Last Flag Flying” (now playing in additional cities nationwide) is its melancholic meditations on duty and sacrifice are lost in a meandering story riddled with questionable plot choices, stuffed into a movie that is longer than it should be.
In short: A grieving widower and former Navy Corpsman (Steve Carell) asks his two Vietnam War buddies (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) to help him bury his son, a Marine killed in the Iraq War.
With a story this relatively straightforward, the film becomes more about the character dynamics between the trio of veterans. The casting of Carell, Cranston and Fishburne keeps this aspect of the film dynamic and engaging. These three actors have the layered dimension of men who have lived with their demons for years – yet share a deep, brother-like bond. Their chemistry is the heart of “Last Flag,” and their pathos is the film’s tragic soul.
Given how little actually happens in this story and how little the characters evolve during this film, there’s simply no reason for “Last Flag” running time to exceed the two-hour mark. People who love the trite quote valuing the journey over the destination will also love “Last Flag.” Laying out the basic plot points is a bit underwhelming – the buddies meet, meet the son’s casket, take him home and have a funeral. The film does everything it can to drag out this pretty minimal plot, resorting to some lame plot elements and padding the runtime with a lot of meaningless banter.
Every moment, frame and word of dialogue should either advance the plot, reveal information or develop characters – “Last Flag” is filled with scenes that barely accomplish any of the aforementioned tasks. The film takes place in 2003 – so prepare for a weirdly long scene where the characters marvel at the anachronistic novelty of flip phones and cellular friends and family plans. And there’s an odd debate about Eminem’s race. These conversations are shallow and lack any significant subtext – it’s just tedious banter; moments that stall the film’s momentum. Some bits of banter at least pull their weight by also doubling as moments for the buddies to reforge their friendship – but there are plenty of scenes are just self-indulgent moments for the characters to play around.
Any film that introduces threats to the hero’s journey must pay them off. Actions without consequences mean nothing. For example, a scene that takes place inside of a U-haul rental office (another bloated, banter-filled scene) includes a moment that threatens the men’s journey home. Theoretically, getting the fallen Marine home is paramount to the story – so anything that could prevent that from happening would be a major plot point. But fear not – what happens at the U-haul office is swiftly defused of all tension in a decidedly anticlimactic manner. This happens multiple times in the film – each setback the men suffer is quickly swept away and has no lasting impact. Each distraction, at best, serves as an excuse to keep the trio together longer – but this cheapens major plot turns.
“Last Flag” has value as a story that is ardently pro-soldier but anti-war. It mourns the fallen and honors their sacrifice without glorifying the horrors of war (and the difficult life after service). Even as the trio of lead characters bristle each other with their sharp character differences, “Last Flag” emphasizes their sense of duty and comradery even in old age – to care for and respect every fallen fellow soldier. And this is part of the frustration with “Last Flag” – that it’s worthwhile and profound themes are peppered into a bloated movie rife with pointless (if amusing) filler.
Final verdict: A shorter cut of “Last Flag” would have resulted in a more focused and affecting film about bonds of brotherhood, regret and duty. Gets a passing score only because its moving and thoughtful moments aren't completely overwhelmed by a bloated film.
“Last Flag Flying” is now playing in additional cities. The comedic drama has a running time of 124 minutes and is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references.