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January 2010

The Last Detail

cast: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Caol Kane, and Michael Moriarty

director: Hal Ashby

100 minutes (18) 1973
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

The Last Detail

Directed by Hal Ashby, written by Robert Towne, and famously bogged down in production for months while the studio tried to cut down the volume of swearing in the script, The Last Detail is one of the bleakest funny films I've seen.

Back in the 1970s, Hollywood was in the grip of the cult of the director in a way that hasn't been seen since, there was an ability to get films made that studios were horrified by, but that directors wanted to make. Of course, the most powerful directors still get to make largely what they want, but now the most powerful directors tend to be ones the studios liked in the first place. That wasn't always the case.

One of the results of that directorial authority was a body of filmmaking that sought to portray the real world shorn of cinematic sensibilities; films such as The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver portrayed an America steeped in grit and economic malaise. These films did not guarantee happy endings; often they were pessimistic and disquieting. Few of them would have survived focus-group analysis.

The Last Detail is one of those films. It's the story of two US Navy lifers, Billy 'Bad Ass' Buddusky (Jack Nicholson). and 'Mule' Mulhall (Otis Young), who have been detailed to take young seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to serve eight years in a military prison. Meadows' crime was to try to steal $40 from a charity box; the sentence is harsh because the charity was the base commander's wife's favourite.

The detail requires Buddusky and Mulhall to take Meadows across the country, they have a week to deliver him and a travel budget that if they travel slow and cheap means they can get drunk and have a bit of fun along the way. That means they have little choice but to spend time with Meadows, get to know him, and so they decide to show him a little fun before he's locked up for a very long time.

Nicholson doesn't act much these days; he's long since stopped needing to. It's refreshing then to see quite how good he was, how good he can be when he wants to be. His performance here is extraordinary, Buddusky is a signalman, a job he glamorises when trying to pick up girls talking of the sights he's seen and the dangers of the navy. He starts fights with marines, shouts out in public how badass he is, he struts across the screen full of brittle certainty about his own excellence. When he tries to teach Meadows the rudiments of semaphore, Meadows learns it in an instant, showing that Buddusky's prized knowledge is something an idiot can pickup easily.

Otis Young's character, Mule, is a 14-year navy man, proud of the navy and of what it's done for him. What it has done for him isn't that clear, his life seems to be nothing great, one of the film's many subtle points is that if the life shown in the film is something to be pleased about where he comes from must be pretty bad.

Larry Meadows by contrast is at the start almost wholly unformed, close to simple. Meadows is a kleptomaniac, but other than that a man with no clear character of his own, utterly lacking in any ability to assert himself, not even able to send back a meal at a diner when it turns up done the wrong way. He's a kid whose plainly never had any breaks of any kind, something made painfully obvious when they all visit his home, and as Buddusky and Mulhall try to show him a good time, they also give him the confidence to live his own life. The irony of course is they're giving him that gift just in time for him to lose the ability to use it.

The interplay between Nicholson, Young and Quaid (all of whom are excellent) is sharp and funny. Buddusky sympathises with the kid, as does Mulhall, but Mulhall is keen not to threaten his position in the navy. Meadows is muted, but slowly coming out of himself, having his first drink, getting laid for the first time, squeezing years of experience into a week. Buddusky and Mulhall bitch constantly, swear as often as they breathe, take pleasure from things like a great Italian sausage sandwich or knocking back beers from the can in a hotel room. They are an authentic, and un-patronising, depiction of American working class life of a sort that few films then and fewer now would dream of showing.

Along their journey the trio encounter hippy Buddhists, end up at a party thrown by middle-class members of the counterculture, they're happier when they later go to a whorehouse that's happy to serve members of the armed forces. When faced with the new America, the America of the counter-culture, they face an impasse which neither side is able (or particularly willing) to try to overcome.

What is powerful about the film is its sense of constriction. Meadows is going to a US Marine run prison where Buddusky and Mulhall fully expect him to be eaten alive. But Buddusky and Mulhall themselves aren't that free. They're a damn sight better off than Meadows of course, but their lives are chosen for them, their small freedoms found in the margins of details like this one, their days bounded by duty and authority in an America that increasingly resents both. Time is running out for everyone in this film, it's just running out faster for Meadows. In the long run, none of them are looking at a happy ending.

The Last Detail is an excellent and thought provoking film. It portrays a slice of American life rarely seen on film, and it's a serious work although it's very funny and desperately sad. Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows live with the illusion of choice, but their choices were all made for them before the movie starts and all that leaves them is the right to bitch about those above them and to sneak a beer on the quiet. It's not much.

The DVD comes with filmographies and some trailers but, as is typical of films of its era, is otherwise pretty much without extras. The cover, by the way, is deeply misleading, implying it's a roisterous comedy. It isn't.

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