Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
WARNING: The last paragraph heavily discusses the film’s ending.
Jack Nicholson. What can you say about this iconic, highly charismatic actor (scratch that—“star,” not “actor”) that hasn’t been said already? He’s one of those actors who could read the dictionary or the phone book and be, for lack of a better word, awesome. There are a lot of movie buffs out there who will argue over which is his best performance. Some say it’s the pissed-off working-class man in “Five Easy Pieces,” some say it’s the slimily charming astronaut in “Terms of Endearment,” and so on. For me personally, it’s no question, although I’d say it’s more my “favorite” rather than “the best.” That distinction goes to his performance in 1973’s “The Last Detail,” as Naval Officer Buddusky, played with the Nicholson charm, the Nicholson attitude, and the Nicholson smirk. His nickname? “Bad Ass.” I get the feeling the screenplay was written with Nicholson in mind as this character because, to me, this completely defines everything this star stands for and is best known for.
Buddusky and his fellow officer “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are called upon for a “sh*t detail,” but this is one that seems fairly simple: transport a young sailor, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), from his Virginia Navy base to the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he will be imprisoned for eight years (“six years for good behavior,” Buddusky assures Meadows). Meadows’ crime was an attempt to lift $40 from a charity box belonging to the base commander’s wife’s favorite charity—a semi-petty crime from a budding kleptomaniac (though he never actually managed to get the money out of the box). Before Buddusky and Mulhall even get to know the kid, they agree that serving an eight-year prison sentence because of this isn’t the least bit fair. But along the way to the brig, by bus and train, they make small talk and get to know each other. The two officers escorting the prisoner find that he’s a sad-sack kid who’s as unlucky as they come. When he has a mental breakdown on the train, they take him off to relax, and Buddusky gets an idea to make this trip worthwhile by stretching it out as much as possible so he can show Meadows how to have a good time (or rather, Buddusky’s idea of a good time). Their two-day trip becomes a five-day journey of beer, ladies, and badass conduct before they inevitably must take Meadows to his destination.
One of the notable assets that works in the film’s favor is Robert Towne’s script (who also wrote another Nicholson vehicle, “Chinatown”), which doesn’t pull punches or go for the easiest task of sentiment. It’s mostly a series of scenes that are either funny, endearing, insightful, or even all three, mostly told through dialogue. The conversations between these three men are mostly natural exchanges and it’s always refreshing to hear characters just be regular people instead of pawns in a screenplay’s game. Credit should also go to director Hal Ashby and cinematographer Michael Chapman—they help what could be formless scenes into something more; something meaningful; something potent. Even in a scene where they’re just sitting around in a motel room, drinking beer, watching a movie, and talking about life and the future, it works because you get into these guys’ heads even more.
But I don’t want to make “The Last Detail” seem so deep that it’s not entertaining and it would chase people away, because it also is very funny, especially when Buddusky comes up with a new way of teaching Meadows how to have fun. There are also many sharp and witty lines of dialogue that makes the conversations between the characters fun to listen to. There’s a sense of underlying bleakness, but it only truly makes its way as a good balance. This way, when something humorous occurs, it’s well-deserved. Some of my favorite bits include a scene at a bar where Buddusky tries to get underage Meadows a drink and snaps at an uptight bartender and a scene in which he tries to hit on a pretty young woman by talking about romance or life on the sea while all she wants to talk about is politics.
Jack Nicholson was tailor-made for this role—profane, vulgar, charismatic, carrying a suitable devil-may-care attitude all throughout the film, and even kind of sentimental, which is notable in scenes such as when he tells Meadows to take back his order at a restaurant because he should “have it the way you want it.” His presence practically makes the film, and “Bad Ass” is the perfect nickname for his character (you were thinking the same thing). The other two actors, Otis Young and Randy Quaid, are solid support. Young is more controlled than Nicholson and a good counterpoint when Nicholson has another idea that may get them in more potential trouble while also (possibly) subtly respecting him in a way that he might actually wish he could be more like him. Quaid is perfect as their charge who is naïve, goofy, and likable; you could even say he’s so pathetic that it’s hard not to care for this poor guy.
At this point, I’m going to discuss the film’s ending in heavy detail. If you haven’t seen the film, please do and come back and read the rest of this review.
The ending of “The Last Detail” is one of the most intriguing and talked-about aspects of the film. It doesn’t end the way movie audiences, especially today’s, would expect. A more conventional film would have ended with Meadows’ escape from his escorts or any kind of decision that would have resulted in him not going to prison. It almost seems as if they were going to go in that direction, in a scene in which Meadows has his chance to escape while Buddusky and Mulhall are discussing bitterly what they have to do in the end. What happens? He bolts, causing them to chase him. They catch him (and not only that; Buddusky pistol-whips him). In the end, Buddusky and Mulhall do their duty and take Meadows to the prison where he is taken away without a word. A lot of people must be thinking, “Why did they do this? Why didn’t they let him escape? How could they let this happen to their new friend after all they’ve done together?” There’s no doubt that both Buddusky and Mulhall are heartsick about the inevitable, but they decide that it is their duty they set out to do and, being honorable men of their position, there’s no other final route. What may throw people off is the hidden irony, which is this—Buddusky pistol-whips Meadows when he catches him and the officer in command at the prison berates him for it…and Buddusky has already mentioned the probable brutality Meadows should expect in the prison. What does that say about the situation? (To be fair, Buddusky does lie when asked if Meadows tried to escape, just to save him any more trouble.) Something else conventional movie audiences would expect is Buddusky and Mulhall would become great friends after this. Do they? It’s hard to tell—as the two men leave, they talk about what they’re going to do next, one of them hoping his Navy orders came through. They just walk away, uncertain of their futures. Fade out. The end. Roll credits. This is what the late film critic Gene Siskel used to call the “life-goes-on” ending, a rarity in films. It’s a resolution in which no matter what we would like to happen to get a “happy ending” out of the film we’re watching, it ends in a way that both surprises and unsettles the audience. (“Terms of Endearment” is another example of this.) It doesn’t end the way we expect it to, or even the way we would like it to, but that’s what you can say for just about any situation in real life. As a plus, by ending movies this way, the audience remembers the movie and can think about what it all amounted to in the end. Discussions among friends can also come about. The ending of “The Last Detail” is hard, realistic, and also ambiguous. It’s a great ending to an already terrific film. The more times I watch it, the more I get out the setup, the journey, and the resolution