The Last Detail

Its Jack Nicholson with a mustache. What more needs to be said?

I heard about The Last Detail after reading a book about the influential directors and stars of the 60s and 70s. Half the films mentioned in the book – The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Shampoo, The Last Movie, etc. – I had either never seen or never even heard about. The Last Detail fit into both categories.

On the service, it doesn’t sound like much. Two Naval officers are chosen for a “detail” – escorting a young sailor to the Brig for a trivial offence (he tried to steal $40). The officers discover early on that the young sailor, an 18-year old kid named Meadows (Randy Quaid, who is a surprisingly good actor despite his current “Star-Whackers” phase and Vegas Vacation), is being unfairly punished because he was caught trying to steal from the admiral’s wife’s pet charity. He’s getting eight years for stealing $40. And he didn’t even get the $40.

Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) decides that the only decent thing to do (and the only thing he and Mulhall (Otis Young) can do without risking their careers) is to show the kid a good time. They’re given a week to take Meadows up to the brig, and while their original plan was to get him up to Portsmouth in two days and then spend the remaining five taking a paid vacation, the two sailors change their minds when they take a shining to Meadows and realize just how unprepared he is for the severity of his punishment. He’s so timid that when his meal isn’t made the way he ordered it he doesn’t even think about mentioning it to the waiter. But Buddusky does, and teaches Meadows his first lesson: it’s just as easy to get what you want by asking.

The film is a coming-of-age story held by two grown men who have already “come of age.” They both understand, and disagree with, Meadows’ punishment. The Navy is taking away the poor kid’s life for a pittance, when he has the opportunity to become a good sailor (Buddusky teaches hand signals to Meadows, who picks it up like a natural, to the older sailor’s slight annoyance). Mulhall and Buddusky are done growing – they’ve made a commitment to the Navy and they’re not going to throw it all away on some kid they don’t even know. Plus, it wouldn’t do anyone one bit of good anyway. So they have five days to make Meadows a man, and the baptism rite involves plenty of alcohol, profanity, violence, and a visit to a brothel.  He’ll still be doing eight years, but maybe he’ll be able to handle it just a bit better because of Buddusky and Mulhall.

The film is known for its frequent profanity (which, considering the movies of today, isn’t as prevalent as one would expect). I’m sure at the time some were upset by the vulgar language but it’s the accurate characterization of what life must be like for some of these men. I just saw the scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly again where the captain is forced to send his men to get slaughtered every day to protect a bridge. He knows that it’s an unnecessary waste of human life, but those are his orders. He has to follow them. It’s the same with Buddusky and Mulhall. They may not like their orders, but they have to follow them. All they have is their profanity – it’s the only buffer between them and the idiotic bureaucracy they have to deal with, and enforce.

The Last Detail is a film of impotent rage. Buddusky and Mulhall originally complain about taking Meadows to Portsmouth because its a “chickenshit detail.” The problem is, they all are. And the only way to get through them is by drinking and cursing. A lot.

Grade: A


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