1973 | R | 1h 44m | Comedy, Drama
As a military veteran, I have been around my fair share of crude banter and surreal situations. So when I watch military-themed films, I tend to be overly critical of how realistic both the verbal and physical exchanges are between troops. If it doesn’t ring true and it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t have much knowledge or guidance of even casual military parlance, I can immediately tell. On the flip side of the coin, if the vernacular is a little too esoteric, it can fly over the heads of most audiences.
“The Last Detail” (1973), directed by Hal Ashby (“Being There,” “Shampoo”), strikes a good balance between the two, and manages to deliver gritty, realistic dialogue that isn’t too cryptic to understand.
The film begins at the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia, where Signalman First Class Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) is snoozing in a barracks room until he is roused by Sweek (Jim Henshaw), the assistant to senior officer M.A.A. (Clifton James). Sweek likewise tracks down Gunner's Mate First Class Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young). Buddusky and Mulhall have been chosen by M.A.A. for a shore patrol detail that consists of escorting a prisoner.
The prisoner in question is 18-year-old Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), who has already been court-martialed for “trying to lift a polio distribution box,” as M.A.A. explains it. Since the charity box belonged to the base commander’s wife (it’s her favorite “do-gooder” project), the youngster has received an unusually harsh punishment of eight years behind bars. Meadows’s sentence is to be carried out at the Naval Prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
During the first stretch of their journey, Buddusky and Mulhall realize that Meadows is a compulsive thief, and even has a history of shoplifting before joining the Navy. Even so, the two grizzled career sailors begin to take a shine to their young charge, due to the Meadows’s childlike nature and because a portion of his youth will be spent in the brig for a relatively minor offense.
Since Buddusky and Mulhall have been given an entire week to escort Meadows to the brig, they give their baby-faced charge a week to remember. They’ve been given per diem pay and reckon they might as well put it to good use.
As they travel through the frigid northeastern United States, we discover that Mulhall is the more sensible man of the two career sailors, while Buddusky is a roughneck who doesn’t mind breaking a few rules (and laws) in order to have what he considers fun.
Early on, Buddusky tries to prod Meadows into being more assertive instead of shy and overly polite. The three change trains in Washington and visit a restaurant for a bite to eat. Meadows’s cheeseburger doesn’t arrive as ordered and Buddusky insists that the youth send it back to the kitchen. Meadows refuses. Buddusky hands the food back to the waiter to get the order right. “See Meadows … It’s just as easy to have it the way you want it.” In this way, Buddusky tries to fill somewhat of a father figure role.
Buddusky and Mulhall grow even fonder of Meadows as they engage in one crazy situation after another. They drink beer in an alley and miss their train out of D.C.; staying at a hotel, they get drunk. In New York, they get into a bathroom brawl with Marines at Grand Central Station, causing the three to miss yet another train. They take Meadows on an ice skating excursion at the Rockefeller Center. At one point, Meadows is even offered a chance to escape to Canada by a house party guest named Donna.
What starts out as a simple prisoner escort film turns into a military-themed buddy road movie, and a highly entertaining one at that. Nicholson is in top form here, turning in what is arguably one of the best performances of his lengthy career; his mischievous wildman antics are a joy to behold. However, underneath all of the bluster and bravado, his character Buddusky is still a man who ultimately follows orders, even if to save his own hide.
I also enjoyed Young, who plays the straight man, and Quaid, the wet-behind-the-ears youngster. Their characters contrast nicely with one another, as well as with the happy-go-lucky Buddusky. Although this film has lots of comedy, there are also some quiet, poignant moments due to the trio’s ultimate destination.
“The Last Detail” is a sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet drama that features believable characters and situations. It also makes the most of the rather simplistic storyline by delivering many memorable scenes, revealing a humanistic undercurrent that is relatable regardless of one's military service. It’s a fascinating snapshot of a brief, yet spirited friendship between three sailors during the wild and woolly 1970s.