The Last Detail (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Navy men Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) are summoned by their superior for an assignment. They have five days to take young Meadows (Randy Quaid), who has allegedly stolen forty dollars from a polio contribution box, from their base in Norfolk, Virginia and deliver him to a military prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Not only is the kid given dishonorable discharge for his transgression, he is sentenced eight long years in the institution. Buddusky thinks the entire thing is ludicrous, an outrage given its trivial nature, so he is intent on giving Meadows a great time prior to his punishment.
“The Last Detail,” based on the screenplay by Robert Towne, is an infectious and surprising celebration of life amidst the grim eventuality that is imprisonment. The contrast between the comedy that tickles our diaphragms, ranging from the random fight that explodes in a men’s restroom to Buddusky’s hilarious euphemisms about sex, and the understated drama of youth about to be stolen forever proves to be its greatest strength.
The picture showcases a series of fascinating and well-directed scenes which show that although “Bad Ass” Buddusky and “Mule” Mulhall are tough guys, they are in very much in touch with their humanity. Certainly they feel and think about things more than what they let on. A simple scene like when the trio spend some time drinking beer and discussing Meadows’ seeming inability to get angry communicates so clearly and effortlessly about what it means to sympathize with another person not just because all three are Navy men but because they all crave more out of life. We learn their reasons for joining the Navy without big, dramatic moments where the score overpowers the dialogue. Theatrics are inappropriate here because this is a story of three seemingly simple men.
What I enjoyed most about the film, directed by Hal Ashby, is being consistently stupefied by Buddusky because he appears to be a complete jerk on the outside. He sneers without much regard for the feelings of others, rolls his eyes at a slightest hint of boredom, and constantly strives for whatever makes him feel good even at the expense of someone else. Because of his cool guy swagger, I was taken aback and was touched when he shows that he actually wants to do the right thing for Meadows.
He recognizes that the eighteen-year-old, though technically an adult, does not have a voice. It enrages him that Meadows is not more upset about his sentence. Nicholson’s performance is critical because he prevents his character from looking like a one-dimensional sap during the more sensitive moments. As his character tries to accommodate for the kid, it is almost as if Nicholson looks and feels awkward for being so nice.
And because Nicholson’s performance was so enthralling, we are given the opportunity to be more aware of the nuances behind the lines he delivers. The situational humor is great but the joy of watching an actor clearly having fun with his role is something else.
Although bittersweet, “The Last Detail,” based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, is ultimately optimistic. Meadows’ many first time experiences with the two men, essentially strangers, who are assigned to execute a specific job might serve as little nuggets of reminder that there will be a life outside the jailhouse that is worth waiting for.