Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” depicts humanity at its most generous and vital. Two Navy “lifers” Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in one of his all-time greatest performances) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (the deeply underrated Otis Young) are assigned a shore patrol detail escorting the shy young sailor Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid in one of his first roles) from the brig in Norfolk, Virginia to the Naval Prison in Portsmouth, Virginia. Though initially resentful of the assignment, Buddusky and Mulhall learn that the 18-year-old Meadows has drawn a cruel eight-year sentence for trying to steal $40 from a collection box and take pity on him, so they decide to show him a good time before taking him to jail. In the several days before he’s due, Buddusky and Mulhall get Meadows drunk for the first time, get him into his first fight, feed him Italian sausage sandwiches, get him laid, and take him ice skating. But when Meadows finally sees the writing on the wall, he makes a last-ditch effort to escape, all for that glorious humanity to come crashing down when Buddusky and Mulhall have to fulfill their duty.
Though “The Last Detail” is probably most remembered for Robert Towne’s (“Chinatown”) script with its frequent profanity (at the time of its release, it broke the record for the most uses of the word “fuck” in a movie) and for Nicholson’s stellar anti-authoritarian performance, it’s a mostly sweet, quiet road film about showing the world to a sheltered kid who won’t be able to experience it for a long time. Ashby and Towne treats Meadows’ upcoming prison term like a death sentence as he’ll be trading his youth away for solitude all for a petty crime, which provides poignancy to the meandering scenes of the trio just hanging out and shooting the shit. There’s a deep sense of melancholy and finality that runs through “The Last Detail” even when it’s at its funniest, not just because of Meadows’ fate, but because of Buddusky and Mulhall’s collective guilt for being part of a system that would dole out such a punishment. The two of them can act all cool and bold around the young Meadows who doesn’t know any better, but they’re still company men tasked to do the dirty work of actually robbing a young man of his adolescence.
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Ashby shoots “The Last Detail” with a observational simplicity (Andrew Sarris described it as “sensitive, precise direction”), unwilling to show off who’s behind the camera in favor of serving the performances and the story. In fact, Ashby lets Michael Chapman’s photography do the heavy lifting; it highlights the grey wintery surroundings of the Northeast, emphasizing the malaise creeping at the edges of every frame, and subtly conveys the sense that the post-1960’s national hangover coupled with the grisly effects of Vietnam had drained all the color from the country. Finally, Robert C. Jones’ editing serves a crucial role in providing cohesion to a rambling film while also giving each set piece its own unique flavor. (One of my favorite cuts in a film ever is in “The Last Detail”: Near the end, Meadows remarks that “if it was summer, [they] could maybe have a picnic”; Jones then makes a hard cut to Nicholson breaking off wood for a fire in the middle of a snowy park. That single cut perfectly captures the film’s heartbreaking core.)
But in spite of all the behind-the-scenes talent, Nicholson easily walks away with “The Last Detail,” giving a performance that’s both bombastic and muted, sweet and coarse, and ultimately lovable even when he succumbs to his worst impulses in the film’s subtly tragic ending. Nicholson was associated with counterculture roles since the 1960’s, culminating in his scene-stealing performance in “Easy Rider,” but it wasn’t until the 1970’s when his rebellious, spit-in-your-face attitude was perfected. It’s still thrilling to see Nicholson scream, “I AM THE MOTHERFUCKING SHORE PATROL” at a sour, racist bartender who refuses to serve them beer, only for him to be howling in laughter in the next scene. He’s simultaneously punk rock and a tender soul. In fact, Nicholson’s performance embodies “The Last Detail” itself: harsh and gentle in equal measure.
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Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
The tough, salty script by “Chinatown’s” Robert Towne never pulls punches or succumbs to easy sentiment, while Hal Ashby’s boozily generous direction allows potentially shapeless scenes, like a drunken all-nighter or a brothel stopover, to breathe with instinctual, off-the-cuff potency. Michael Chapman’s gritty cinematography, meanwhile, grounds the digressive revelry in harsh winter surroundings that seem haunted by the dual specters of Vietnam and a trickster President on the verge of disgrace. Yet it’s the stellar central ensemble that commands the most attention: Nicholson’s cigar-chomping, profanity-spouting grunt is one of the greatest incarnations of stunted machismo onscreen, and he’s brilliantly complemented by Quaid’s picture-perfect awkwardness and Young’s bracing cynicism. (Sadly, the imposing, basso-voiced actor all but vanished from movies afterward.) There’s a once-in-a-lifetime feeling to the trio’s every interaction — not only as characters but as performers — that makes the film’s casually tragic climax that much more devastating. Read more.
Don Drucker, The Chicago Reader
A tough-talking, sparely directed effort by Hal Ashby, with an immaculate performance by Jack Nicholson as the arrogant and salty (but feeling) sailor who tries to stay in charge of the odyssey, and almost doesn’t. Read more.
Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
The movie is the record of the beer-soaked journey that Buddusky and a gunner’s mate (Otis Young) take when they’re assigned to escort a morose 18-year-old seaman (Randy Quaid) from the brig in Norfolk, Virginia, to the naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The film is distinguished by the fine performances of Nicholson and Quaid, and by remarkably well-orchestrated profane dialogue. It’s often very funny. It’s programmed to wrench your heart, though — it’s about the blasted lives of people who discover their humanity too late. Read more.
Vincent Canby, The New York Times
Mr. Ashby persists in making comedies (“The Landlord,” “Harold and Maude”) that are never as funny as the treatments he gives them would have you believe. “The Last Detail” is his most interesting and contradictory so far. You’ll laugh at it, not through your tears but with a sense of creeping misery. Read more.
Richard Armstrong, Senses of Cinema
Few films have such a sense of time running out, an obsession with finitude that renders each coarse naturalistic second poignant. When they take Meadows to the whorehouse, he must choose quickly and well. When he thinks he has fallen in love, the still-waiting camera urges him to speak up before it’s too late. When he tries to escape through the park, we pray that Buddusky won’t load his revolver in time. When the three men sprawl like schoolboys on the snowy ground, it is getting dark. Two years after “The Last Detail,” “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975) appeared, marking the emergence of the synergy-driven corporate blockbuster that would mean death to little New Hollywood junkets like this. In 1988 Ashby himself was dead. Read more.