It’s no accident this tale of three ex-Vietnam war veterans on a late-life road trip to accompany a coffin to its resting place has echoes of Hal Ashby’s 1973 classic, The Last Detail.

Last Flag Flying

That early career triumph for Jack Nicholson about two sailors giving a callow young colleague a taste of life en route to naval jail was based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan. This new film has been co-adapted by Ponicsan and US independent veteran director Richard Linklater from the author’s 2005 literary sequel to The Last Detail. It picks up the trio’s stories in later life, but if you’re a fan of the earlier movie, it’s best to put memories aside and take the new film on its own terms.

The men, who have been renamed, are former marines, one of them an ex-medic, who have seen and done things as young military men of which they’re not proud. Starting the ball rolling is Steve Carrell’s Doc. In a spiritual crisis following the death of his son in the Iraq war, he turns up one rainy night at the bar run by Bryan Cranston’s Sal. Gradually they dust off the cobwebs before Doc explains he needs help in transporting his son’s body across country. The trio’s final member is Laurence Fishburne’s quietly settled and initially hostile Reverend Mueller.

Their eventful trip is woven with laughter and sadness, machismo and sensitivity, the ex-marines’ self-denial making way for a confrontation with the inner world of pain and guilt that none has really shaken, but dealt with in their own very different ways.

If the story seems familiar, it’s not only due to Ponicsan, but because it fits into a template of stories about coffins being transported across country established by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and followed by several films including the adaptation of Graham Swift’s Booker Prize winner, Last Orders.

Linklater’s visual sense has largely deserted him here – this looks like a 1970s or 80s television crime series, or maybe it’s just the damp weather blanketing most scenes. But the lead performances are exemplary and the emotional landscape they traverse is far from grey.