Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, based on Daryl Ponicsan's 2005 novel, follows three Vietnam veterans who reunite to retrieve the returning body of a young man killed in Iraq. As such, it's somber and respectful, and even has a couple of genuinely powerful moments, but none of that's enough to transcend its oppressive dreariness.
Ponicsan's original book was actually a sequel to his cult 1970 novel The Last Detail, which was filmed so masterfully by Hal Ashby in 1973; the author also co-wrote the script for Last Flag Flying. There's a world of difference between Ashby classic's three sharply drawn, riveting personalities and the cliche trio of old-timers we find here. The film opens with almost supernaturally shy recent widower Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) entering a seedy bar owned by his old Marine buddy, gruff boozer Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). Together, they go to visit another comrade, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a one-time wild man who is now a married pastor and a beacon in his community. The boozer, the priest and the introvert: These are boilerplates rather than characters.
Doc has reached out to his friends after all these years because he needs their support in facing the unimaginable: greeting his only son Larry Jr.'s coffin as it arrives in the U.S. That's a devastating premise and the director's minimalist streak serves him well when Doc asks to see his son's body. But for much of the rest of the film, as Doc, Sal and Mueller accompany the coffin on its journey from Delaware to Doc's home in New Hampshire, simplicity slides into the simplistic, and Linklater's unobtrusive cinematic style starts to feel slack and unimaginative.