A young Navy Seaman named Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid, Christmas Vacation) has been sentenced to eight years in jail for stealing $40 out of a collection box. Is the punishment far too stiff for the crime? Yeah, but Meadows made the mistake of stealing from his Commanding Officer's wife's favorite charity. And thus, a good kid who made a dumb mistake will now be required to spend nearly a decade behind bars. Petty officers Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson, Chinatown) and Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young, The Outcasts) have been tasked with escorting Meadows from their base in Norfolk, Virginia to the Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. After spending a little time getting to know Meadows, Buddusky decides to give the kid a good time (mostly in the form of food, drink and women) before he gets locked away.
The Last Detail is technically a comedy (and a consistently funny one, at that), but it starts on an angry note and just grows more bitter as it proceeds. From the very beginning, Johnny Mandel's score suggests that we're watching the sort of old-fashioned military comedy that might have been produced decades earlier, using cheerful martial anthems to underscore scenes of playful misbehavior. The deeper you get into the film, the more the music begins to sound bitterly ironic - a flat-out cruel piece of counterpoint to the chilly winter landscape and the growing feelings of dread.
While the film's regular use of R-rated profanity ("I AM THE M-----F---ING SHORE PATROL!") won't feel like anything special to modern viewers seeing the film for the first time, the consistent saltiness of the dialogue was regarded as flat-out shocking when the film was initially released. At the time of its release, The Last Detail contained more f-words than any other film in the history of cinema (the official tally is 65), which proved a consistent source of conflict between the filmmakers and studio executives. Indeed, the film's release was delayed on multiple occasions due to the studio's fear of how the public might react to the extreme profanity. Their fears were unfounded: people were cool with the idea of sailors talking like sailors, and the film fared well at the box office despite a weak marketing campaign.
While the film technically has three leads, it's clear that Nicholson is the real star. Nicholson had certainly delivered exceptional performances earlier in his career (his standout turn in Easy Rider is a particularly striking piece of work, and Five Easy Pieces cemented his distinctive screen persona), but The Last Detail finds the actor reaching new heights: it's an explosive, funny, furious piece of work, but also a performance that feels completely grounded in reality. Nicholson's inherently rebellious, anti-authoritarian screen presence gives us a sense of who this guy is right off the bat: this is not a man who takes much pleasure in wearing uniforms and following orders. He keeps his disdain for the Navy well-disguised enough to keep himself out of trouble, but the further he gets from Norfolk, the less guarded he becomes. "You know what I like most about this uniform?" he asks a prostitute. "The way it makes your dick look."
The other two actors are quieter and don't get nearly as many chances to step into the spotlight, but both do fine, nuanced work. Quaid's turn as Meadows is a portrait of self-loathing timidity; a man who's so used to being told he's worthless that he's not even upset about the unfair treatment he's receiving. Buddusky has determined to give Meadows a good time, but it takes a good long while before Meadows starts to see "having fun" as something other than just another task to deal with. Young's Mulhall is the most mature member of the group, joining in on the shenanigans but quietly trying to keep the mission on track. He holds the Navy in considerably higher esteem than Buddusky, but his frequent statements of loyalty ("I don't know where I'd be without the Navy...") begin to feel increasingly defensive and unpersuasive.
The Last Detail was director Hal Ashby's follow-up to the marvelously odd Harold and Maude, and his soulful, off-center comic sensibilities go a long way towards giving the film a memorably distinctive sense of simultaneous playfulness and mournfulness. The film was made at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and like many of the best films of the early-to-mid-1970s, it's often filled with a sense of freshly-minted cynicism and cultural fatigue. His portrait of America's East Coast is filled with colorful sights - a discount diner serving up savory subs, a skating rink, a friendly brothel, a Nichiren Shoshu service - but the world is ultimately a cold, lonely one (perhaps best defined by what may be the saddest picnic outing of all time). When the journey begins, Meadows has accepted his fate with a shrug. By the time it has concluded, he's lived just enough to know precisely what is being stolen from him.
The Last Detail
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 1973