Entertainment Magazine

The Last Detail

Posted on the 16 April 2020 by Christopher Saunders
The Last DetailJack Nicholson's wilder side finds full expression in The Last Detail (1973). Hal Ashby's military road movie comes awfully close to tipping over into cliche sentimentality, yet its portrait of male bonding and quiet injustice strikes a pitch-perfect note throughout.
Two sailors, Signalman 1st Class Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate Richard Mullhall (Otis Young) draw a shore patrol detail escorting Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the Portsmouth brig. The sailors look forward to an easy allowing for down time, but find themselves sympathizing with Meadows, sentenced to eight years for stealing $40 from a donations jar. Buddusky takes Meadows under his wing (with an annoyed Mullhall trying to keep his partner grounded) on a rampage of drinking, whoring and general coming of age. But eventually time runs out, and Meadows has to face the music.
The Last Detail offers a treasure trove of '70s mega talent: besides Nicholson, there's Randy Quaid fresh off his breakthrough in The Last Picture Show and a veritable riot of up-and-comers: Nancy Allen, Gilda Radner, Carol Kane. Hal Ashby had an extraordinary run of films in the '70s, from Harold and Maude through Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There before his career dramatically flamed out; Robert Towne wrote this script (based on Darryl Ponicsan's novel) while trying to sell studios on Chinatown. What on paper doesn't seem overly compelling becomes a minor classic in their hands.
Towne's script, and Ashby's almost verite direction, allow for a surprising degree of immersion. The Last Detail's rampant profanity ("I am the motherfucking shore patrol!") shocked '70s viewers but seems almost tame today; this directness feels more authentic than more conventional military dramas. Predictable scenes of troublemaking - Buddusky fighting with a squad of off-duty Marines, Meadows' first experience with a prostitute (Kane) - are interspersed with mundanity: the trio huddling uncomfortably in trains and buses, sipping juice and huffing stogies, becomes the recurring image, while a long scene of them boozing in a hotel offers totally credible moments of male bonding. Buddusky relishes a well-mixed malt and a tasty sausage as much as more base delights; Detail's as much a celebration of simple things in life as it is a boisterous road movie.
Buddusky makes an intriguing, very '70s antihero. Like so many Nicholson characters, he's a born rebel unable to hide his contempt for his CO (Clifton James) or the various squares. Yet he also finds the Navy life a perfect fit for his outsized personality; he can brawl, booze and ball to his heart's content, so long as he doesn't break too many rules. Nicholson eventually eschewed subtlety entirely for self-parodic mugging, yet his outbursts here (punching out a lamp, threatening a surly bartender) seem perfectly in character. Buddusky's a deeply frustrated man who uses shore duty as an excuse to vent and cut loose, knowing full well he'll back into line soon enough.
Randy Quaid scored an Oscar nod for his performance, taking a stock character (the gentle giant) and making him compelling. At times Meadows' naivety (combined with kleptomania) is hard to buy, yet he learns self-confidence through Buddusky and his other experiences (including a run-in with a Buddhist sect) that help him mature - and steel his determination to escape. Otis Young's Mullhall is less flamboyant than his costars but serves as the movie's rock; he's happy with the naval life, which gives him steady employment and a degree of respect he might otherwise lack.
Ultimately, for all its unconventional moments The Last Detail winds up precisely where you expect. Buddusky and Mullhall deliver Meadows to the brig (having foiled a last-second escape attempt), cross swords with a pompous Marine jailer (Michael Moriarty) and move on to their next assignment. Hopefully some of what they imparted to Meadows will stick, but even so he has a long time in the brig before he's able to apply them. The movie ends with his captors walking off, cursing and complaining but nonetheless compliant, to the next job - one surely as unfulfilling as this one.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog