You wouldn’t know it by looking at his last fifteen or so years of work (starting with Bat-ham, I mean Batman), but there was a time when Jack Nicholson was the single most daring and exciting actor working in Hollywood. As Matt Cale said when I told him that I had just watched The Last Detail, “Nicholson really hit his stride with that one.” Right on, brother Cale. Filmed just before Chinatown, “Jack” really lights up the screen. Not to sound like every other fucking reviewer out there, but The Last Detail
is really a gem of a movie, one that you ought to discover. Nicholson
stars as Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky, a Navy lifer who is much more
interested in, well, anything than the Navy. But mostly drinking,
fighting and cussing. Oh, and whores. He’s teamed up with “Mule”
Mulhall (Otis Young), another career sailor who also has lost the
calling. The thing is, the two of them have no other skills except for
being in the Navy. They are given the “chicken-shit detail” of taking a
young sailor (Randy Quaid) from their base in Norfolk, Va. to a naval
prison in Portsmouth, NH. Meadows (Quaid) is facing eight years behind
bars. His crime? Attempting to steal $40 from a polio donation box.
He’s eighteen years old.

Buddusky and Mule have five days to get Meadows to the brink.
Initially the two balk at the assignment, but then Buddusky suggests
that they get the kid up there as quickly as possible and then take
their time (and their per diem) getting back to the base. However, it
quickly becomes obvious how pathetic Meadow’s situation is. He’s a
baby. He’s never done anything, especially with a woman. More
than that even, once sprung from the confines of the base, Buddusky
simply cannot resist the call of the wild. He’s free, however
temporarily, and he has to exploit that fact. Quickly the plan
shifts; they are going to take their time getting Meadows to prison,
and show the kid how to have fun along the way. Mule, a very
interesting character study of blacks in the armed forces, mostly
agrees with the plan. However, unlike Buddusky he needs the Navy. I
take that back, for Buddusky also needs the Navy. Mule though,
because he is black and from the deep south, has no other options
period. Buddusky is just wired in such a way that he could never
actually fit into society. So, in rethinking it, I suppose Buddusky
needs the Navy even more. Whether he’ll admit it–like Mule–or not.

Their exploits start in DC. They have a few hours to kill
before the train leaves so they decide to get some good “chow”
(Navy-speak for food). There is a really brilliant scene where freezing
(it’s winter) they peer into the window of an upscale restaurant. They
all comment that it looks good, but what goes unspoken is the class
barrier that just won’t allow guys like them to go into a place like
that. Hesitating, Buddusky asks if anyone can see any booths. None are
to be found, as it is a jacket and tie type of joint, so they move on.
Meadows comments that he hopes wherever they go, the cheese on his
burger will be melted. They find a greasy spoon and sure enough they
don’t melt Meadow’s cheese enough. Buddusky tells him to send it back.
But the shy Meadows says that it’s fine, not to worry about it.
Buddusky yells at the waiter to melt the kid’s cheese. Naturally, by
the end of the film, Meadows is barking orders at waiters when his food
isn’t right, but it is not cheesy; it is not done in an on-the-nose
sort of way. There is a development to the character–it makes sense.

Then they go for some beers and it is really maybe one of the most
enjoyable scenes in all of cinema. The bartender wants to see Meadows’
ID. Buddusky balks and asks why. The bartender responds, “I have to
serve him (pointing to Mule), but the kid looks to young.” Mule then
tells the bartender to shove the beers up his ass sideways. Buddusky
gets even angrier and starts calling the guy a redneck. After much
bluster, the bartender threatens to call the shore patrol. In a way
that really has to be seen to be appreciated and loved, Nicholson pulls
out his side arm and explodes, “I am the motherfucking shore patrol! I AM THE MOTHERFUCKING SHORE PATROL!!! Give this man a beer!
When Meadows meekly states that he doesn’t want a beer, Buddusky
re-explodes, “You’re having a fuckin’ beer!” Just a masterful, unhinged
performance. The three bail and wind up drinking beer in an alley until
they miss the train. So, they get a motel room and get really good and
drunk. What’s great about this scene, is that all three of their
personalities really come out. Mule, while being able to appreciate a
“good time,” is a serious man at heart. Buddusky is a clown, a maniac,
a loose cannon. Meadows, is just a sweet, mixed up kid who really got
the short end of things. Tragic, really. Buddusky gets on the young guy
for never getting angry at anything. Finally, when pressed, Meadows
admits that one time a Marine told him that he was Jesus, and that
really made him angry. Mule, for his part, chastises the kid for being
a believer. Mule feels that chaplains just want to stand on the bridge
of the ship, looking holy with the captain. It’s a great insight, not
only into holy men, but again into the mentality of blacks in the armed
forces. A chaplain is just another version of the man.

They eventually make it to New York and Mule has had enough of
Buddusky’s fooling. He states that they are not leaving the station
until the train arrives. Buddusky of course simply cannot sit on his
laurels when the call of the City is so close. In another excellent
scene, Buddusky follows a bunch of marines into the john. Naturally,
they start messing with him, saying that he can’t find his dick in his
thirteen button pants. Buddusky comments that if he were a marine, all
he’d have to do is take off his hat. A fight breaks out, and after the
three kick the crap out of the marines, they flee into the streets.
Eventually they wind up at a party and we learn how exactly tied to the
Navy all three of them are. They alljust want to get laid. Budusky goes
about it by explaining to an artsy-chick how he does “a man’s job.” He
just keeps repeating it over and over. The disconnect between what
Buddusky wants and the means he employs to get it is stunning. Painful
to watch, really. Mule on the other hand is being grilled by two
“counter-culture” types about his opinion of Nixon and the Vietnam War.
In frustration, he finally blurts out that if the man tells you to go
and fight, you go and fight. Meadows, for his part is just a pathetic
kid. Needless to say, the three of them get no play from the women.

After a brief detour, they get to Boston and the idea of
sending the kid off to eight hard years a virgin just doesn’t sit well
with either Mule or Buddusky. They opt for a whorehouse with a young
Carol Kane as a spaced out hooker. Watching Meadows lose his virginity
is again, like all three of them interacting with the outside world,
painful. He comes in about four seconds prompting Kane to blurt out,
“Jesus Christ! That’s what I call quick.” Which of course is basically
the last thing you ever, ever want to hear, sweet mixed-up kid
or not. He gets the funding to “go again” and makes the amateur mistake
of trying to get validation from the whore. Sad, sad stuff. And then
he’s off to Portsmith for eight years. As Buddusky comments, “Goddamn
grunts, kickin’ the shit outta him… ‘Maggot’ this… ‘Maggot’ that…
Kid don’t stand a chance.” However, like him and Mule, there is nothing
else Meadows is capable of doing. I’m rue to use the word fate, but
really, what else could Meadows do? All three men are Navy, through and
through. Do yourself a favor and rent/purchase The Last Detail.
Aside from being a tragedy, it’s a comedy and a hell of a sociological
observation of guys in uniform. Plus, how can you not love a film
that’s tagline is, “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?” Also, you’ll understand why Nicholson is allowed to
coast about in Hollywood, playing a caricature of his former self. He’s
never better.