At one point in Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, Jack Nicholson's character drinks a toast to Superman, Batman, and The Human Torch. In 1973, such a toast had an entirely different meaning than it would in 2013. Those comic book characters have come to symbolize the bloated movies of modern times, the extravaganzas that ask nothing of audiences but to sit still and be beaten into numbness with special effects. Forty years ago, though, they represented something else: nostalgia. As Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky reminisces, one can see this rough navy man as a child, whiling away a summer afternoon with a comic book in his lap. Comics have changed. Movies have changed. I'm not concerned about comics, but I sure as hell wish there were more movies like The Last Detail.
Nicholson was on an incredible winning streak at the time of The Last Detail. He'd already been in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, while Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest were just ahead of him. What made Buddusky slightly different from other Nicholson characters of the era was that he was not a rebel per se; he was a navy man deeply enmeshed in the system. Although he referred to the Norfolk base as "shit city," Buddusky proudly called himself a lifer. Buddusky and another lifer named "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young ), are assigned to bring young Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid, in a role that almost went to John Travolta) up the East Coast to a naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Of course, Buddusky isn't above bending the rules - he suggests to Mule that they run the kid to jail in two days and use the rest of the time as a holiday. But when Buddusky learns that Meadows earned eight years for stealing a measly 40 dollars from a charity box, he begins to question the very system that has housed him for so long. Rather than take the kid directly to jail, Buddusky decides to show him a good time. And in Buddusky's world, that means beer, prostitutes, and fist fights.
Movies skewering the military were fashionable in the early 1970s. MASH was the biggy, and Catch 22 tried like hell, and Slaughterhouse Five deserves an honorable mention, but The Last Detail may have been the best of the lot. It was a road movie with saucy language and slapstick violence. At times it had the simple forward motion of an Italian neo-realist film of the '40s. It was comical, but there was always the glum knowledge that Meadows was on his way to jail. Mule, the pragmatic one of the group, suggests they shouldn't let Meadows have too much fun because he's about to lose his freedom. Is it kind or cruel to buy him beer and get him laid right before he goes to prison? Buddusky doesn't know, but soon Mule is enjoying Buddusky's madness, too.
Their adventures are small at first. They take Meadows to diners where they teach him to return food if it's not prepared to his liking. They take him ice skating. They bring him to his mother's house, but she's not home. They look in the house and see bottles strewn around the living room, old negligees tossed haphazardly over the couch. They check into a hotel, where Buddusky teaches Meadows navy hand signals, and then tries goading him into a fight. "Haven't you ever wanted to bite a guy's ear off," Buddusky asks, "just for the hell of it?" Buddusky tries to inspire Meadows by trashing the hotel room, but Meadows isn't a fighter. He's morose, a chronic shoplifter prone to fits of crying. Mule suspects the kid might be crazy. At times, the scenes play out as if Buddusky and Mule are the parents of an overgrown and not terribly bright child.
Their journey brings them to New York and then Boston. They eat sausages and drink beer, and even crash a group meeting of Buddhist chanters. Meadows is fascinated by the "nom yo ho renge kyo" chant and even lands an invitation to a Greenwich Village pot party. "Pull up your socks and grab your cocks," he tells Buddusky and Mule, "We're going to a party!" One of the movie's delights is watching Meadows grow bolder.
It's at the party where we begin to see Buddusky in a different light. He's delusional. He thinks the ladies like him, but they yawn during his stories of the sea. He makes goofy comments about how his uniform flatters his penis (it's one of the few ad libs in the movie; Ashby encouraged the actors to stay with Robert Towne's tight script) and suddenly, it dawns on us that Buddusky is not a charismatic anti-hero, but a loudmouthed runt. Still, the more pathetic Buddusky seems, the more Nicholson shines.
Nicholson is a kinetic marvel in this movie. Much shorter than his tall co-stars, Nicholson is constantly jumping as if trying to see eye to eye with them. According to Nick Dawson's excellent biography of Hal Ashby, Nicholson would look into his viewfinder before each scene to get an idea of how much playing space he had to work with. Then he charged into each scene like a rocket. After the film's most glorious set piece, where he verbally assaults a bartender ("I am the fucking Shore Patrol, motherfucker!"), he leaps into the air, propelling himself skyward, as if the world he lives in cannot contain his anarchic energy. Either that, or he's trying to fly like the Human Torch.
Ashby initially feared that Nicholson was overacting. "It just felt too big," Ashby said of Nicholson's manic energy. "But when I looked at it, it wasn't." Allowing Nicholson freedom to play the role as he wanted resulted in one of the great turns of Nicholson's career. Nicholson even slipped in sight gags: he drinks a milkshake and gives himself a milk mustache; at the party his drunken eyes follow a swinging light bulb like he's hypnotized, and at one point he describes the joys of cunnilingus by yodeling. He even turns a simple scene of combing his hair and mustache into an almost Chaplinesque tour de force. He also has a way with swearing that sounds natural. He swears, not like an actor in a movie, but like a sailor.
Still, many scenes end with Buddusky starting trouble and then running away, laughing. He's a middle-aged man with the soul of a street punk; Navy life hasn't matured him, but kept him at approximately 18 years of age. For all of his talk about porn and sex, he's clumsy around women and does nothing at the whore house. And for all of his toughness, he's not a particularly good fighter (he favors the cheap shot from behind). Finally, for all of his outlandish threats, the only person he beats up in the film is the oafish Meadows.
When Meadows tries to escape at the film's climax, Buddusky pistol whips him. It's an ugly scene. Mule has to pull Buddusky off; we later see that Meadow's head has been cracked open. I used to think Buddusky's anger came out because Meadows had betrayed him. There's also the conventional thinking that Buddusky feared getting in trouble if Meadows escaped. Either way, Buddusky's feelings about Meadows are complex. At times he glares at him with disdain. Yet, in one of the film's best moments, Buddusky nearly cries, thinking about Meadows in jail where the grunts will kick the shit out of him. There isn't much that separates Buddusky and Meadows. They're both outsiders; both are doomed.
In Darryl Ponicson's novel, Buddusky is a former teacher, a reader of Camus, a closet intellect who only joined the navy to get away from his family, and because he was told he could retire at 38. Towne's screenplay does away with such backstory. Towne also scrapped the book's maudlin ending, which has Buddusky killed in a fight. Towne and Ashby agreed that Buddusky's death would seem heavyhanded in their movie. Nicholson, of course, would die in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and win an Oscar in the process.
Ashby's ending sees Buddusky and Mulhall take Meadows to the prison and then part ways. The two sailors seem cold and alone as they walk away from the prison. Buddusky says something about spending a day in New York before heading back to Norfolk. One pictures Buddusky wandering around Manhattan, taking in a peep show, maybe losing the rest of his traveling money on a game of darts, not caring too much because no matter how bad things get, shit city awaits.
Ashby (1929-1988) had been an Oscar winning editor before becoming a director. The darkly humorous Harold and Maude (1971) established him as a force in the new Hollywood, and it was Nicholson who suggested him for The Last Detail. The script had been kicking around Hollywood since 1969, but studio executives objected to the foul language. Even when the film was wrapped,Columbia studio heads asked Ashby to cut 26 lines (Ashby refused). The film turned out to be a hit, both critically and financially. Ashby's hunch was correct; people accepted the foul language as proper for the sailors' environment. Still, some felt Columbia held back from promoting the film because of the vulgar talk, and that the studio's reluctance prevented The Last Detail from being an even bigger success. In the next few years Ashby would direct several classics, including Shampoo, Being There, and Coming Home. But like many of the characters in his films, Ashby was an outsider. Despite his successes, he spent his final years arguing with studio heads and having projects taken away. Hollywood, Ashby found out, was as rigid and unbending as the military.
Nicholson, Quaid, and Towne received Academy Award nominations. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who helped create the film's bleak, wintry look, deserved one, too. Otis Young (1932-2001) is an overlooked actor, but his work as Mule was a key part of this movie's success. He was caught between the more showy performances of Nicholson and Quaid, but he portrayed Mule as a different type of navy lifer, one whose mother brags about his travels, one who doesn't want Buddusky's behaviour to screw up his tenure. Young pulls off the difficult task for any actor, by standing up to Nicholson in several scenes and still remaining likable.
There's a scene where Mule and Buddusky discuss their nicknames. Both came about because people couldn't pronounce their last names. Mulhall became "Mule." Buddusky became "Bad-Ass." Buddusky thinks his nickname is laughable, but after a scene where he pulls a gun on a bartender, Meadows says, "You really are a bad ass." Buddusky answers, "Damn right I am." In shit city, having a nickname like "Bad Ass" is almost as good as being a comic book hero.