‘The Last Detail’ ***** Movie Review 110607

The Work = *****
‘The Last Detail’ is a piece of classic cinema, a great film to be sure but it is not a grand story. Instead it is a small story; the tail of two sailors: Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young). They have the unfortunate duty of taking a third sailor, Meadows (Randy Quaid), to military prison. This may not sound like the makings of a winning film but believe me it is. I highly recommend ‘The Last Detail’ and say you should give it a look see.

Buddusky and Mulhall have to drag Meadows across the country by bus and by train to his unfortunate end. Right from the get go the abrasive and loud Buddusky has a plan to race the prisoner to his destination and then spend the rest of the time blowing off the marine’s travel per diem partying. All does not go as planned: Meadows is a naive clepto’ kid, that does steal but doesn’t know why. His sentence is based on politics and the poor guy has nothing but guilt about his thievery. (In fact, he is prone to cry about his deeds when confronted.) As I said before, this may not sound like a winning film but trust me it is.

Nicholson gives a great performance as Buddusky. It is one of those performances that only he could give and is arguably the highlight of the film. He is a little scary, a little funny, and all tough guy. Young has the thankless job of playing opposite Nicholson but manages to stand out by dialing down his performance. The louder and more obnoxious Buddusky becomes the more firm and reserved Mulhall stays. Quaid plays a certain kind of innocence in ‘The Last Detail’ that makes Meadows endearing and his situation tragic. The kid wins over the pair of older, jaded sailors, and soon enough they are getting him drunk and talking about getting him laid. Meadows is really the heart of the film and part of what makes many sequences so moving.

The film is basically a buddy picture following the three sailors. They bond, cross the country and try and wise up the hapless Meadows. Looming over the journey of the three men is their destination. Robert Towne wrote the film from a novel by Darryl Poniscan and the dialogue is definitely one of the strengths of the film. I can’t imagine what it was like to see the ‘The Last Detail’ in its day because the sailors talk and swear like, well, sailors. To today’s audiences who have sat through HBO’s ‘Deadwood’, there will not be much shock value but I imagine at its release there might have been some notice. Watching it now, what is clear, is the language was not just for shock because it does not play as exploitation today. Instead, the dialogue sounds naturalistic and perfectly fits its characters.

Director Hal Ashby shoots the film in a steady but often naturalistic style. The result is everything looks like it was shot on location, capturing these characters as they lived. I have no idea whether everything was filmed on location or not but it appears to have been filmed at the actual settings depicted in the film. There is a certain grit to the footage too as everything looks almost like it was shot on the fly such as a passage at a commuter station where nothing looks cleaned up and there is garbage everywhere. Their journey covers almost all aspects of male bonding (comic books even come up at one point) and they cross a variety of characters in their journey. Gilda Radner can be spotted briefly as a member of a meditation group and Carol Kane has one of her first onscreen appearances as a young prostitute.

I don’t know why but ‘The Last Detail’ is not as celebrated as many other features of the decade. I don’t know how successful it was when released but based on the promotional art I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences had no idea what to make of the film. The most common poster art that I have seen is a photo of Nicholson smoking a cigar wearing a sailor hat and no shirt. The image looks like something one might expect to see on a gay pornographic feature. Far better would have been an image of the three main characters walking down the street, that can be seen on one of the lobby cards for the film.

As I have said, ‘The Last Detail’ is a great piece of 70s cinema that for some reason is not as well remembered as other hits of the era. Ashby, like the film itself, is not as well remembered as he should be and I think this movie is just itching for a re-mastered special edition DVD. In the mean time, do yourself a favor, give ‘The Last Detail’ a try! Highly, highly Recommended.


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