Richard Linklater Made a Sort-of Sequel to a Jack Nicholson Classic


The Big Picture

  • Hal Ashby’s film
    The Last Detail
    inspired director Richard Linklater’s 2017 film
    Last Flag Flying
  • Both films highlight the mistreatment of American veterans and the impactful burdens they face.
  • Linklater maintains Ashby’s storytelling style with realistic character developments and humor in
    Last Flag Flying

While he may not be a household name in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, the brilliant director Hal Ashby was responsible for some of the best films of the “New Hollywood” era of the 1970s. Ashby’s acerbic, yet sincere style of filmmaking offered an authentic look at the human condition, and spoke to disenfranchised audiences who felt neglected by mainstream cinema. Shampoo and Being There are often cited as highlights, but Ashby’s 1973 masterpiece The Last Detail proved to be an essential film about the social effects of the Vietnam era. The narrative of The Last Detail inspired director Richard Linklater to make an odd “legacy sequel” of sorts with his 2017 film Last Flag Flying.

The Last Detail follows the lifelong Naval officers Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) as they accompany the young seaman Laurence M. “Larry” Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. Meadows had attempted to steal funds from a charity donation box and landed himself a dishonorable discharge; despite his crimes, both Buddusky and Mulhall begin to have empathy for him as they make the long trek across the nation. The Last Detail ends on a somewhat ambiguous note that doesn’t confirm the characters’ fates; while Linklater did not make a direct sequel, Last Flag Flying continued the themes of The Last Detail in order to tell a modern commentary on the mistreatment of American veterans.

What Is Richard Linklater’s ‘Last Flag Flying’ About?

Set in the early 21st century, Last Flag Flying is another road trip adventure about three veterans trying to justify their years of service. The former Marine Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) is suffering from the shocking news that his son, Larry Jr., has been killed whilst serving overseas in the Iraq War. With few personal friends he knows can support him, Larry decides to seek out two fellow Marines who he has not seen since they were serving in Vietnam together. In the years since, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) has become a bitter, hard-drinking bartender who shows some signs of radicalism; comparatively, their former “wildman” partner Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) has completely revamped his life and become a Reverend. Although both Sal and Richard are settled in their new lives, they take pity on Larry, and decide to help him accompany his son’s body to the scheduled burial. The experience forces them to reflect upon the memories that they have been suppressing for nearly half their lifetimes.


This Actor Wanted To Be Killed Off in Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’

Twelve years is a long time to film a movie.

While the names are obviously changed, one-to-one parallels can be drawn between the characters in The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying. Carell plays a soft-spoken, hopelessly innocent character who is treated like a “younger brother” by his fellow Marines, which is similar to the diminutive presence that Quaid has in The Last Detail. Cranston certainly channels Nicholson’s performance, as both characters are loud-mouthed, somewhat-eccentric men who are quick to make comments about situations that they don’t totally understand. Young’s performance as Mulhall served as the de facto “voice of reason” within The Last Detail’s original trio, and Fishburne occupies a similar presence in Last Flag Flying; while Richard doesn’t want to leave his family and faith community, he understands that Larry is in need of guidance, and that Sal may not be the mentor he needs at the moment.

Richard Linklater Uses Hal Ashby’s Storytelling Style

Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne in 'Last Flag Flying'
Image via Amazon MGM Studios

One of Ashby’s greatest qualities as a filmmaker is his aptitude for an almost uncomfortable level of realism. There’s a free form nature to his narrative construction that simply allows the character development to take precedence over specific events. Linklater inherits Ashby’s authenticity from The Last Detail in Last Flag Flying. While the group has an overall goal of transporting Larry Jr.’s body, a majority of the film revolves around conversations between Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne. What could have easily been dull becomes electrifying thanks to the great performances. Though Cranston succeeds in giving an eccentric supporting role worthy of Nicholson, it is Carell’s heartbreaking dramatic performance as a grieving father that steals the film.

Both The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying are about situations that are essentially hopeless, but both Ashby and Linklater invert the dramatic tension by incorporating some humor. There is a lot of great banter between the three leads in Last Flag Flying as they reminisce about their wild experiences in the war. A moment of Sal recounting Larry’s first sexual liaison, for example, is one of the funniest moments in Linklater’s entire filmography. Since Last Flag Flying is a film about older men returning to their youth, Linklater finds a fun way to show that their idealized version of the past varies drastically compared to reality.

‘The Last Detail’ and ‘Last Flag Flying’ Show the Totality of the American Veteran Experience

While they are framed against the backdrop of two different wars, both The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying show the ways that American veterans are discounted by the nations that they serve. The films have an interesting approach; they’re not broadly nationalistic, but rather highlight the individual sacrifices that a generation of men made in their youth. Both situations are inherently unfair, with Meadows potentially facing imprisonment for a minor crime, and Larry being forced to bury a son who he had encouraged to enlist. It’s a unique way of showing the burdens that veterans face long after the battlefield.

The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying serve as a perfect double feature that shows how little has changed in the years between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Neither generation of characters knows entirely what they are fighting for and struggles with severe post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their experiences. Linklater updated the context of The Last Detail, and reflected upon how sadly little had actually changed.

Last Flag Flying is available to watch on Prime Video in the U.S.

Watch on Prime Video



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