No *#@!!* Navy's going to give some poor *!!@ kid eight years in the #@!* brig without me taking him out for the time of his *#@!!* life.
A bittersweet, oddly moving tale about three Navy men and their escapades during an inevitably tragic journey, The Last Detail is a little known gem brought in decent fashion by Columbia TriStar into your home theater.
A journey is always a terrific background for a movie (or a story of any sort), as you have a definite beginning and end, a fixed set of characters interacting with an infinite variety of people they come across, a continual sense of purposeful motion, and a variety of locations to keep things interesting. When the main characters are played by solid acting talent, then you probably have an entertaining movie on your hands, and so it goes with The Last Detail.
There are no massive car chases, special effects, or earth-shaking events shown, but just a simple story of three men on a road of destiny that they cannot change but stopping to savor some of the pleasures of life along the way. The ultimate tragedy is that the experiences and lessons learned along the way only accentuate the final unfairness that looms at the journey's downbeat ending. It is not pretty, but it is a raw and unflinching look at an ordinary evil that is one among millions.
We fade in on the Norfolk Naval Base, where Petty Officer Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Petty Officer Mule Mulhall (Otis Young) are idling away waiting for their next assignment to come through. When it does, it comes in the unexpected form of temporary duty as "chasers" escorting a prisoner up to the Naval Prison in Portsmouth, N.H. The unlucky prisoner is Seaman Meadows (Randy Quaid), a sad-sack kleptomaniac who had the bad luck to filch a charity box belonging to the charity favored by the base commander's wife. For this petty crime, Seaman Meadows received the not at all petty sentence of eight years in prison.
By bus and train, the trio makes its slow way to Washington, D.C., getting to know each other through average chatter. When Meadows has a mental breakdown aboard the train, Buddusky and Mulhall decide to take him off the train at Washington for a little cooling off. A quick meal of burgers and malts in a dive becomes a lesson in spine stiffening for Meadows, and when Buddusky tries to get young Meadows a beer in a bar, "Bad Ass" lives up to his nickname. Now determined to see that Meadows has a decent time on his way to Portsmouth, Buddusky decides to take a more leisurely approach to the trip, and they stay the night at a local motel, drinking beer and engaging in more life education for the woefully meek Meadows.
A quiet stop in New York becomes anything but when "Bad Ass" decides to pick a fight with a group of Marines, and with a little help from Mulhall and Meadows, "Bad Ass" carries the day! Needless to say, the trio runs out of the station to let things cool off before their train is due to leave. The finest Italian sausages known to man and some beer later, Buddusky decides that their travel money needs a little fattening. After few darts and some "Bad Ass" hustle, they have a bankroll to choke a horse. Before they can decide what to do with it, Meadows becomes enamored of a religious sect's chanting 'meeting' that leads to them to the tantalizing but fruitless prospect of female companionship.
Now in Boston, Buddusky broods over their failure with the fairer sex, and decides that the virgin Meadows must gain his first sexual experiences. A friendly ex-Navy cabbie helps them find the local cathouse. When Meadows picks a young, sullen prostitute (Carol Kane), things are as awkward as might be expected, but eventually he gets the job done right. With only hours left until they must report to Portsmouth, an offhand comment by Meadows about a picnic becomes a mission for Buddusky and Mulhall, despite the snowy chill of a Boston park.
Even in Boston the prison gates loom large, and Mulhall and especially Buddusky are heartsick at having to complete their journey, but they have no real option. A final flurry of excitement and an officious Marine Duty Officer (Michael Moriarty, best known for the TV series "Law and Order" and Pale Rider) later, Mulhall and Buddusky trudge into the future, secure in the knowledge that at least their careers in the Navy await. Fade Out.
Jack Nicholson was in a real groove when he did this flick, having completed Easy Rider just three years previously, and then going on to glory in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He's made for this profane role, with the right balance of devil may care attitude, intimidating presence, and well-controlled sentimentality. It is not a coincidence that co-writer Robert Towne also wrote perfect Nicholson roles for Chinatown and The Two Jakes. Even the name is perfect—who else could play a character named Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky?
Unknown Otis Young is a good counterpoint to Nicholson with his more pragmatic and hard-headed traveling companion, but always with a subtle undercurrent of resignation at his situation. You get the feeling that his character wishes he could be more like Buddusky, but he can't risk his comfortable but constrained life. Randy Quaid (National Lampoon's Vacation, Quick Change, Independence Day), in a very early film role, pulls off the difficult task of turning his sad-sack Seaman Meadows from numb prisoner to likable, goofy, and vibrantly living human and back to numb prisoner. If his performance doesn't tug at your heart, even a little, then you might not be human.
The video transfer is acceptable for an older catalogue title like The Last Detail. The print has its share of flecks, blips, and the rare line, but it is kept within reasonable limits. There is some film grain present, but nothing to get your knickers in a twist about. Sharpness is reasonable and flesh tones are good, and while the colors are muted and occasionally on the washed out side, this is not unexpected for a movie from this era. Shadow detail is lacking in some areas, particularly the dark blue Navy coats that often seem without any buttons or other features. On the positive side, no doubt due to Columbia's wise decision to make an anamorphic transfer, there is scant evidence of any digital enhancement artifacts.
The audio, well, it's a typical mono track from nearly thirty years ago. The package claims it is a digital remaster, and I take them at their word, but I have to wonder whether it improved upon the original elements or not. The dialogue is clearly audible and the music sounds as constrained in its frequency range as you would expect. Turn off your surround speakers and give the subwoofer a rest; you can always pop in Saving Private Ryan afterwards if you need a sonic thrill.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Extra content is limited for this catalog title. The talent files are a joke, with only director Hal Ashby, Jack Nicholson, and Randy Quaid listed, and with only the sketchiest information aside from a "selected filmography." On the up side, there are four trailers for The Last Detail and three other Nicholson flicks (As Good As It Gets, A Few Good Men, and Wolf), the last three of decent quality but sadly only the As Good As It Gets trailer is letterboxed.
Fortunately, you do get a two-page color insert with some production notes and the preferred Amaray keep case.
As a movie that mixes equal parts of life, laughter, and tragedy, The Last Detail is strongly recommended if you are looking for a film to both entertain and move you. If you are even a casual Nicholson fan, then give serious consideration to a ($25) purchase.
The Court Martial Board unanimously dismisses charges against the film, whereas Columbia is reprimanded for its negligent handling of the extra content.
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