Jack Nicholson’s post-Easy Rider ascension to Hollywood’s A-list continued with The Last Detail, a crowd-pleasing road movie of sorts dominated by the raunchy Navy sailor whom Nicholson portrays with manic intensity. Written by Robert Towne from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, and directed by the peerless humanist Hal Ashby, The Last Detail begins when enlisted men Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) get assigned to a demeaning task: They’re to escort a sailor named Meadows (Randy Quaid), who has been sentenced to eight years in jail for petty theft, across several states so he can commence his incarceration.
Buddusky is a heavy-drinking troublemaker who peppers nearly every sentence with some variation of the word fuck, and Mulhall is a savvy African-American whose strategy for survival is flying below The Man’s radar. Buddusky convinces Mulhall to drag out their transport duty so they can pocket extra per-diem money, and once they meet Meadows, both men become sympathetic to the kid’s pathetic circumstances. A simple-minded stooge whose real crime was pissing off a superior officer, Meadows is so green that he’s never had booze, cigarettes, or sex. Buddusky decides to ensure Meadows experiences all three before hitting the brig, so the trio’s journey becomes a hell-raising odyssey.
Some of the episodes are exactly what one might expect, like a brawl with a group of Marines, but others exude pure early-’70s quirkiness. The sailors meet a hippie chick who meditates with Far East chanting, so Meadows picks up the habit, and the sailors make a pit stop at Meadows’ home to discover the bleak reality he left behind when he joined the Navy. The Last Detail walks a fine line between comedy and drama, often pivoting instantaneously from raucous to somber and back again. While Ashby’s masterful control of tone anchors the storytelling, the picture rises to an even higher level on the strength of the performances.
Quaid works the weird gentle-giant vibe that characterized many of his early roles, and it’s to his great credit that Meadows keeps surprising us right through to the final scene. As for Nicholson, his flamboyant turn in The Last Detail cemented his cinematic persona. And while he’s probably over the top in many respects, exaggerating his character’s volatility almost to the point of seeming insane, excess seems like an appropriate acting choice since Buddusky’s supposed to represent the male animal cut loose from decorum and propriety. (Young is fine, by the way, but his character is so underdeveloped that he’s regularly eclipsed by his costars.)
The Last Detail isn’t perfect, given its weakness for clichés like the hooker with the heart of gold (Carol Kane plays this thankless role with a blend of cynicism and sweetness). Nonetheless, by the time the movie reaches its downbeat finale, Ashby and his collaborators have delivered a potent statement about the limitations that bureaucracies—and, really societies in general—place upon individuality.
The Last Detail: RIGHT ON