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'Last Flag Flying' is kind of a puzzling follow-up to 1973's 'The Last Detail'

( L-r) Bryan Cranston as "Sal," Laurence Fishburne as "Mueller" and Steve Carell as "Doc" in "Last Flag Flying." MUST CREDIT: Wilson Webb, Lionsgate
Published Nov. 20, 2017

Richard Linklater called 2016's Everybody Wants Some!! a "spiritual sequel" to his last-century breakout Dazed and Confused. Different characters, same youthful, life-exploring vibe.

Linklater's latest, Last Flag Flying, can be considered a spiritual sequel to 1973's The Last Detail, each based on Darryl Ponicsan's U.S. Navy-based novels. It's a tough act to follow: directed by Hal Ashby at his peak, starring Jack Nicholson on the cusp of a cuckoo's nest.

As an artist, Linklater naturally wants Last Flag Flying to evoke The Last Detail without remaking it. Same characters but different from Ponicsan's book. The changes are puzzling, at times contradictory. Ponicsan shares credit on the adapted screenplay but I wonder about his input.

Why hire Bryan Cranston to emulate Nicholson's Billy "Bad-Ass" Buddusky then change the character's name and, even worse, service branch? Buddusky brawled with U.S. Marines; now he is one for no discernible reason. Same with Randy Quaid's Meadows, the prisoner Buddusky and "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) escorted to the brig. Mulhall is now Marine vet Rev. Richard "Mule" Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne.

Linklater's movie works best when it embraces Ashby's past; familiar sights framed identically to The Last Detail like train cars and a bar begging for Cranston to declare he's the effing Shore Patrol. Cranston's Sal Nealon is Buddusky's garrulous equal, blowing cigar smoke rings on a hotel bed just like Nicholson. It's an entertaining performance, to be certain. But why fiddle with its source?

Sal retired from the Marines to run a dive bar where Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell, in for Quaid) shows up out of the blue. Doc apparently added a few IQ points in prison compared with Meadows. He's married with a career, seeking Sal for help he's owed. They reunite with Mule before Doc reveals the favor: His son was killed in Iraq action and is being buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Doc needs the support of comrades who once locked him up.

It's a somber reason for another road trip that Billy — I mean Sal — will waylay for good times never quite turning out that way. The Arlington thing will be complicated when Doc learns the truth about his son's death from a Marine (J. Quinton Johnson) who was there. Last Flag Flying has tragic bones to pick with the military that aren't as absurd as jail for stealing a charity donation box.

Linklater tinkers with Ponicsan's memorable characters while asking practically the same performances of his actors that Ashby did. Of course, if a viewer isn't familiar with The Last Detail then Last Flag Flying gets by as an okay grumpy old soldiers tragicomedy. The rest of us know better because we've seen far better.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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