Two battle-hardened petty officers are charged with the task of escorting an eighteen-year-old sailor from Virginia to Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire, where he’s to serve eight years for trying to steal forty dollars.
OSCAR nominee for Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Supporting Actor (Quaid), Best Screenplay
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Hal Ashby's third film in the director's chair, The Last Detail, is an in intelligent dramatic comedy adapted for the screen by legendary screenwriter Robert Towne from Darryl Ponicsan's novel of the same name; and although Ashby initially turned down the project, its anti-authoritarian overtones were well allied with his own political views. His line producer on the film, CharlesMulvehill, would later muse, “Hal hated authority. But on another level, he was afraid of it.” This mindset is echoed in the characters of petty officers Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Young), who know in their hearts that the task they have been set is unjust, but carry it out nonetheless for fear of being punished themselves.
We first meet Buddusky and Mulhall, nicknamed “Badass” and “Mule”, when the pair are rounded up and ordered to report to the naval base’s master at arms, or MMA, played to deadpan perfection by the superb Clifton James.
Unfortunately for Meadows, polio is a charity for which the base commander’s wife is a successful ambassador, prompting Clifton James’ classic line, “Every year they give her a plaque. Along comes Meadows and fucks over charity.”
So, it’s clear from the outset that the two “chasers” – the name given to sailors charged with custodial escort duties – are not at all in agreement with the harsh sentence handed down to the young Meadows and soon come to the conclusion that the kid is actually a kleptomaniac, who needs a psychiatrist more than a jailer. Badass and Mule take to the timid giant of a boy, deciding to do what they can to make his last days of freedom for some time as enjoyable as possible, starting with a stopover in Washington D.C., where they get him blind drunk for the first time.
The trio follow this with a night in New York, kicking off the festivities by getting him into a fistfight with a group of Marines, who they beat the crap out of in a train station toilet before running off in a haze of testosterone and laughter. Later that evening, they take him ice-skating, looking on with real joyas Meadows lumbers about the ice like a baby giraffe, indulging him in an activity that’s more suited to a child – which is essentially what he still is, having been thrust into the role of an adult without the proper social instruction.
The root cause of Meadows’ naivety is highlighted by the next stop on their journey when Buddusky suggests that Meadows be allowed to visit his mother, who lives just outside of Philadelphia. Predictably, she is nowhere to be found, with the state of his family home alluding to an alcohol problem thatprompted his father to leave for good when he was just a young boy. This family dynamic is reminiscent of Ashby’s own childhood, having lost his father in 1941 to suicide; a situation made all the worse by the fact that it was a twelve-year-old Hal who found his body in their family’s barn. His father had stuck a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger.With and insight into Meadows’ childhood, and in the knowledge that they’ve dredged up some painful memories for the kid, the two chasers try to raise his spirits again by chipping in the cash for Meadows to become a real man and lose his virginity with a pretty young prostitute, played by a pixie-like CarolKane. Throughout their journey, it’s Nicholson’s character more than Oatis Young’s who takes the reigns of young Meadows’ schooling in the ways of the world – though to be fair, Buddusky is the main instigator of all the crazy antics the trio get up to – and that’s the saddest part, as his final gift to the kidis to pistol whip him about the head for trying to run off hours before they hand him over to the marine guards at Portsmouth. His final lesson in becoming a man.
This film is a truly masterful exploration of the human condition that will have you laughing your head off one minute and welling up with tears the next. The subtleties of Nicholson’s performance as the badass with a vulnerable sidewon him the Best Actor Award at Cannes in 1974 and ranks right up there with his Oscar winning turn in As Good As It Gets. It contrasts nicely with Oatis Young’s more dry-witted and logical Mulhall, who is led almost as much astray by Buddusky as young Meadows is. Randy Quaid is perfectly cast as the shy and troubled gentle giant, a far cry from the overbearing neurotics that he’s more likely to be remembered for.
The cinematography, while painterly, gives the characters and their surroundings a somewhat bleak appearance – an air of documentary to it with the use of real locations and minimal lighting, much like The French Connection. The use of the military marching band on the soundtrack is also put to clever use, picking up the audience’s spirits as the trio move from thebad end of one situation to the hopeful start of the next.
Somewhat ironic considering the filmmaker is making a statement against the authoritarian practices of the army, where everyone marches to the same tune. The one thing that lets it down is the editing, and the overuse of dissolves and fades to insinuate the passage of time. It doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film as such, as the genius is the characters’ interaction, but it does begin to grate a tad about half way through, mainly because it just seems like lazy editing that could have been avoided.
If you had to sum the film up in one word, it would be “bittersweet”. It’s hopeful in the sense that Meadows has had his eyes open to a wider world and feels more confident in it, yet cruel in sense that he won’t get the chance to flourishin his newly enlightened state.