Format: Movies! on rockin’ flatscreen.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, which means I probably should post the review of The Last Detail tomorrow rather than today. However, today is when I watched it, and that’s how things work. This is a film I’ve heard of before and knew virtually nothing about beyond the broad strokes of the plot and that it’s a film that features the legendary Jack Nicholson in his prime.
Those broad strokes of the plot are pretty much the whole film; there’s not a great deal of nuance in the story of The Last Detail. Two career Navy men are assigned the detail of taking a prisoner to lockup. And that’s pretty much it. The guts of the movie are that trip, which is far less than the constant escape attempts you might initially think. While there’s certainly some comedy here, this is not a comedy of errors or anything like a chase movie with two swabbies tracking down an escapee. Instead, it’s more of a road movie and a character study of the three men involved.
Navy lifers “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are tapped to transfer a prisoner named Meadows (Randy Quaid). They’re given a per diem for the three of them and more than enough time to complete the task. It’s Buddusky’s original plan to get the kid to where he’s going quickly, keep as much of his per diem as possible and split that with Mulhall to spend on the way back, essentially giving the two of them a nice little paid vacation.
After an initial and not very serious escape attempt on the train, Buddusky and Mulhall start to feel some sympathy for Meadows. He’s an 18-year-old kid who was busted for trying to steal $40 out of a charity fund for polio victims. As it happens, that charity happens to be the pet project of the head of the base’s wife, so Meadows set up as an example, with an eight-year sentence and a dishonorable discharge. The plans change immediately to giving Meadows a last fling before he’s locked up rather than a vacation on the way back.
This means getting him drunk, getting him some decent meals, attempting to see his Meadows’s mother, and eventually giving him a chance to lose his virginity before he’s stuck in a cage for some of what should be the better years of his life. There’s a single panicked escape attempt that goes nowhere, and eventually the kid gets dropped off and the film ends.
There’s not a lot of mystery as to where this is going to go and not a lot of plot to take us there. Instead, The Last Detail is a series of events that are designed more or less to give us some insight into the three characters. The problem is that it doesn’t really give us a great deal of insight into those three characters. It ends up more or less being just a series of events with the same three guys and the same eventual goal at the end. There are a couple of nice cameos, specifically Carole Kane as the young prostitute in the brothel and Michael Moriarty as the O.D. at the Marine prison, but otherwise, it’s two older Navy men trying to give a little life experience to a guy who’s life is going to be over for a number of years.
Since it’s not going to be the plot that keeps us interested and the characters don’t have the depth that would normally be needed in something this lacking in plot, it’s going to have to be the performances and the interaction of the characters that keeps things going. This is a dialogue driven film, and the amount of profanity was almost certainly shocking for 1973, although it’s hardly that shocking today. It’s a good script, though, and this comes through the three main performances.
Both Nicholson and Quaid were nominated (Actor and Supporting Actor respectively) which makes me wonder why Otis Young got left out of the mix. What makes The Last Detail work as well as it does is how the three personalities interact. Buddusky is the lifer who sees the Navy as a way to survive and does his best to get as much as he wants within the rules. Mulhall sees the Navy has his personal savior and wants to do nothing that jeopardizes the life he has built for himself. Meadows is just a dumb kid with no life experience in over his head. That combination is what gives the film any power that it has. Otis Young’s Mulhall is the voice of reason the entire time, which also may be why he was ignored come nomination time. He’s the sane one, the one who just wants to do his job. In that respect, he’s the least interesting character, but he’s also the one most easily identified with.
Discovering that this isn’t essentially Midnight Run in Navy uniforms is something of a relief, believe it or not. This would quickly become tedious if the whole film was little more than Buddusky and Mulhall tracking down an escaped prisoner. Instead, trying to fit what will have to be eight years of life experience into a couple of days turns out to be pretty interesting, and surprisingly heartfelt.
The Last Detail is a one-and-done film for me, I think, but it’s quite a bit more (and less) than I expected at first blush.
Why to watch The Last Detail: Nicholson being Nicholson.
Why not to watch: Why the hell did the Academy forget about Otis Young?