It would be difficult to make a better military-themed movie than The Last Detail, the 1973 Hal Ashby adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s debut novel about two fun-loving sailors escorting a third to the brig for the ignominiuos crime of pilfering a charity box. With a script by Robert Towne and one of Jack Nicholson’s most indelible performances, it’s a unique feature, better than M.A.S.H. at plumbing the contradictions sane men put up with when following the killing chain of command, and the seminal road movie in an era when the road movie came into its own as a sub-genre. Ponicsan wrote a sequel in 2004 with the same three characters, older, obviously, and going on another road trip, but director Rickard Linklater, for reasons that can only be surmised, decided to change the names of the characters, their branch of service to the Marines (which is odd, since in the original movie the Marines are sworn enemies of the Navy), and the most salient trait of the character who went to jail, namely his innocence. In fact, this character, called Doc (Steve Carrell), seems to have been dishonorably discharged for a more serious offense than stealing.
Perhaps understanding that he could never replicate Towne’s acerbic dialogue and Ashby’s pre-PC ribald filming style, Linklater decided to retool the story (with Ponicsan’s help) and make it not only more temporally relevant, but copacetic with modern movie norms. And while it’s certainly a letdown for anyone who remembers The Last Detail, it’s a fine movie on its own terms. Doc eventually settled down in New Hampshire, married and had a family, while, ironically enough, working as a civilian for the local Naval exchange. His son, against his wishes, enlists after 9/11 and is sent to Iraq, where he is killed early in the conflict. Resentful of the military in general and the Marines in particular, he travels to Delaware to retrieve his son’s body and along the way enlists the help of the two men who accompanied him on his last road trip, Sal (Bryan Cranston, channeling Nicholson without making a big deal out of it), a dyed-in-the-rye alcoholic running an unsuccessful bar in Pennsylvania, and Richard (Laurence Fishburne), who has changed from a violent jarhead to a gentle pastor with a grounded family life.
What was vital about The Last Detail was the way it undermined our confidence in the military during the Vietnam War without actually making political hay about the war itself. Last Flag Flying has to contend with 40 years of Vietnam aftermath, not to mention hindsight with regard to the debacle that was and still is the war on terror. Doc’s suspicions that his son’s death was not as the Marine Corps officially reported are confirmed by his son’s best friend, and with the help of his two comrades he bucks the Corps’ advice to have the boy buried in Arlington, a hero’s rest that Doc sees as a betrayal of his responsibility as a father, and so they hijack the coffin to be buried back in New Hampshire.
The ensuing road trip, which involves missed trains and shipping manifesto subterfuge, is more interesting than the first half, where Linklater has trouble aligning his characters’ most representative traits with their quest as the Three Musketeers of veteran misanthropy. Along the way, several of The Last Detail‘s most memorable scenes are referenced in equally humorous fashion, and eventually Linklater gets to where he is going, which is to show how these three men have moved past their youthful identities as ostensible men of honor who never acted very honorably. Though I didn’t believe for a minute that they were the same persons who made The Last Detail the subversive romp it was, they are perfectly credible for what they represent here on screen: late middle aged Americans who gave up any idealized concept of America a long time ago.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063).
Last Flag Flying home page in Japanese
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