by Sean Barron
We’ll start with describing The Last Detail in one sentence because apparently I suck at writing loglines and I intend to practice and make myself not suck at it:
Two Navy Men who “got a lotta time in,” land an unwanted detail charging them with escorting an 18-year-old sailor to Portsmouth to do eight years of hard time for stealing from a Navy donation box.
The title, The Last Detail, is the assignment that our two intrepid navy “lifers” must finish, namely escorting said 18 year old, Meadows, (Randy Quaid), to prison, in Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s 1970 novel of the same name. The book is good, but the movie is much better.
Jack Nicholson as “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, wants to show the young and impressionable Meadows a good time along the way to jail. His partner in crime, “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) thinks having fun just “ain’t in him.”
Director Hal Ashby and writer Robert Towne come together in full force in The Last Detail, crossing proton streams of talent to miraculous ends. This is a duo we all wish had made more films, especially Patton Oswalt, who longed for these two savants to adapt “A Confederacy of Dunces” (see the forward of his fantastic book, “Silver Screen Fiend“).
I digress. The Last Detail finds Ashby, an artist of distinction in a stacked-to-its-gills talented ’70s filmmaking scene, working at the height of his directorial powers. Robert Towne penned the script, which is only part of the reason he deserves a seat at the table (he also wrote Chinatown and Shampoo — not to mention countless others as uncredited “Script Doctor”).
This is a movie that couldn’t fail. There are three reasons:
1.) Ashby and Towne.
2.) First-time cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, and Raging Bull) almost lost the gig to the legendary Haskell Wexler, who, luckily for Chapman, had scheduling conflicts. Chapman’s use of natural lighting evokes the film’s emotional truth, though the DP humbly claims he only went this route because he was terrified of messing anything up with artificial lighting for his first time in the chair.
3.) Lastly, and especially, because of a seamless trio of characters who serve as counterpoints. Nicholson (as yet another guy you’d love to have as your drinking buddy), Randy Quaid (long before his deadpan delivery of “Shitter was full” made him a Christmas icon), and Otis Young (who has a low-key performance worthy of Oscar recognition) are an unstoppable force here, all doing some of their best work.
Although John Travolta auditioned for the role, Meadows was meant to be played by Quaid, who gracefully portrays the sheepish 18-year-old who’ll be spending eight years in Portsmouth for stealing $40 from a certain Navy brass’s wife’s charity box. We not only sympathize with Meadows because he’s had the book thrown at him by a draconian establishment, but because of a quick, elegant scene where we learn he is, in fact, a kleptomaniac.
Mule and Buddusky stop at seedy motels and enjoy boozy nights along the way. The tension hinges on the fact that our two Petty Officers will get into deep trouble if they let Meadows escape before they make it to Portsmouth. They let him know that they’ll kill him before letting him escape, and, armed with pistols, they have the means and right to do so.
Along the way are some brilliant set pieces, one of which shows our trio joining a Buddhist chant (with a Gilda Radner cameo to boot) — because it wouldn’t be a Hal Ashby movie without a Nichiren Shoshu chant scene. Buddusky even manages to pop Meadow’s cherry, sending him off with a barely adult Carol Kane, credited here as a “Young Whore” (yes, that’s really the character’s name in the credits; it’s the seventies, so I’ll let it slide).
The Last Detail is a thoughtful meditation on the establishment and the men who imbricate themselves within it. The ending is painful with just the right amount of irony as Buddusky and Mule come to terms with doing their duty and have to answer for doing it their own way. We leave Buddusky and Mule as each man awaits their next orders. They’ve both “gradually shed a layer of affected disinterest, as they learn, too late, that indifference will only pave the way for greater government corruption with speedier efficiency,” as Chuck Bowen so elegantly put it in his 2013 review for Slant Magazine.
The Last Detail could not be made today. There’s no spandex, no contrived twists or turns that make us lean forward in our chairs, no spectacles to applaud, no “high concept.” Instead, it deeply explores its characters and their motivations, simply and poetically.