“They really stuck it to ya, kid.”
Darryl Ponicsan’s 1970 novel The Last Detail is, above all things, anti-institution. Such things only look out for themselves, with little regard for the individuals who keep them running. So when Hal Ashby, he of the social mores-resistant works Shampoo and Coming Home, signed on to adapt the story, it was a blissful match that became even more sanctified with the inclusion of one of the seventies’ greatest actors.
Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner (collectively BBS) are notable names here, as they ushered in a crest of bold and viable storytelling that confronted the American experience, represented best by Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show. There, in the capacity of trusted friend but often as an invisible fourth partner, Nicholson pulled from the MGM-American International Pictures (AIP) stable he trotted around in the decade prior, a wellspring of New Hollywood talent. Bruce Dern, a luminary among fictional scoundrels, was one such stallion; he starred opposite Nicholson, each jarringly and tenderly cast against type, in Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972. By the time The Last Detail was released, the studio had fallen some from the Roger Corman-dominant era and success of counter-culture biker gang juggernaut The Wild Angels (starring, again, Dern riding alongside Henry Fonda), though Blaxploitation gems like Blacula would continue to bring in steady moviegoers before a dabble in mainstream waters (Force 10 From Navarone, The Amityville Horror) drained the pocketbook at the tail end of the decade. With and through BBS as with Ashby, Nicholson held the steady pulse of the American counterculture.
One thing about Jack Nicholson: if his character simply must be a part of the system, he’ll be the squeakiest cog in the whole works. The creative triple-threat twirled around his fingers a spiritual rebellion that married to Hal Ashby’s outsider cinema for a collaborative slice of the new American cinema.
Far from being a rowdy road trip comedy, The Last Detail taps into something more disgruntled. The first moments of the film display a frigid world, chugging along with or without the consent of its occupants. At the Fifth Naval District in Norfolk, VA, a squad of sailors move in file up the main road as a young seaman walks with a purpose, shoulders hunched and coat collar upturned. Acting on behalf of the Master-At-Arms, he’s on his way to collect Petty Officer “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Nicholson), whose first lines include, “Tell the MAA to go fuck himself.” Gunner’s Mate Mulhall (Otis Young) echoes the sentiment when summoned, with a bonus assertion: “I ain’t going on no shit detail.”
The detail is indeed a shit one: the duo have been assigned as chasers, armed escorts who will deliver a baby-faced Private Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His crime: attempting to steal $40 from a charity box that happened to be run by the commanding officer’s wife. His punishment: eight years in the brig, stripped of his rank, garnished wages, and a dishonorable discharge that will follow him for life. Buddusky later tells Meadows what everyone is thinking, “They really stuck it to ya, kid.” But Bad Ass and Mule can’t pardon the boy, they can only follow orders and complain. They bristle at it, exchanging tired glances and eye rolls when the MAA presents them to Meadows as “mean bastards when they want to be, and they always want to be.” But the clouds part to reveal a unique opportunity. Buddusky is aware, and makes Mulhall aware, that they can get their charge to Portsmouth quickly. “We could get him there in two days,” Nicholson grins. The words pour like molasses. “They’re going to give us a week, you know what I mean?” Saving his per diem pay and theirs, they could get the job done and squeeze in a mini-vacation on Uncle Sam’s dime – a far better compensation than the allowance would bestow. Thus begins The Last Detail, an acerbic feature-length rage against the machine, from within the machine.
One of Buddusky’s first rebellions of the mission comes when he removes the prisoner’s handcuffs, citing vague Navy policy that allows for the detainee to use his hands freely for safety reasons. Meadows is revealed, through montage, to be a kleptomaniac; when caught by Mule, he makes a failed break for it and tearfully confesses that he can’t stop himself from lifting things he doesn’t even desire. The ensuing relationship between Buddusky and Meadows becomes paternal, with all subsequent mini-rebellions aimed at giving the kid wonderful life experiences before he serves his sentence. With Mulhall reluctantly going along (“This ain’t no farewell party and he ain’t retiring,” he snaps), Buddusky gets the young prisoner sauced, stoned, laid, rowdy, and satiated with the best 50-cent Italian sausage sammies in the world. It’s mostly done in natural daylight, with Ashby working in tandem with cinematographer Michael Chapman (his camera operator on The Landlord) to lend a documentary-like feel to the proceedings, and it works – the sailors are like any pulled off the street.
Robert Towne’s devastating adapted screenplay gives plenty of leeway to the role of Buddusky, cognizant of Nicholson’s penchant for bounding along the peaks and valleys of the human spirit. Ashby, along with Chapman, expands upon the trust placed in Nicholson by giving him a wide berth in the frame for his emotional tempests. The glory is in the details; performances are observed so loosely, with such authentic corrosiveness, that the character development takes on a natural credibility. Never meeting a “motherfucker” he didn’t like, profanity trips off of Nicholson’s tongue as easily as a childhood nursery rhyme – one of the few military characters that feels like a real sailor off the street. A collection of Roger Ebert’s Four-Star Reviews (from 1967-2007) contains praises of the character’s incredible complexity; that Nicholson, as Buddusky, is so compelling to observe that “we stop thinking about the movie and just watch to see what he’ll do next.” He’ll pull a gun on an racist bartender and he’ll pick a fistfight with Marines with his trademark grin, but then he’ll quietly spin his homegrown wisdom with a warmth that practically melts the snow around him.
The scenes in which Buddusky lives up to his “Bad Ass” nickname bring levity, but it’s his quiet moments of emotional contradiction that elevate the minutiae to a peak stratum of feeling. Nicholson’s performance earned him Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination (which Jack Lemmon swiped for Save the Tiger), but more than that, his Buddusky is connected to the aimless Bobby Dupea of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Both men diverge from the old classical protagonist template, severed from any strong plot or conscious motivation. If an obstacle arises, traditional protagonists are in the position to do something, anything about it; not so with Dupea, Buddusky, or the men of the decade’s greatest gambling pictures: Robert Altman’s California Split and John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Yes, Jack Nicholson was emblematic of an entire shift in storytelling, which found personal initiative unnecessary (and even a hindrance) to the worlds created and observed.
Nicholson’s extremes are grounded by the performances of Quaid and Young. The former brings poignancy – if Buddusky is fully formed, then Meadows is an un-shappen youth. It’s his innocence (even with the petty thefts) that prompts much of Buddusky’s shenanigans, fueled by a frustration that this kid hasn’t even had a chance to be a man, over a measly forty dollars. He’s the only character with something like a traditional arc, opening up to Bad Ass and Mule when they show him the slightest bit of friendliness and learning how to put his foot down, even when the protest is useless. Otis Young acts more like Pinocchio’s conscience, a walking reminder that the pair have a job to do. As a Black sailor who had to put in years of work for his authority and seniority, he’s not about to let Buddusky’s antics screw him over professionally; both are lifers, resigned to a career in the only line of work that will have them until retirement. At a party, he struggles to relate to white liberals who wonder why he doesn’t question Nixon or the Vietnam War (a war which isn’t explicitly a theme in the film, but lies all around the margins of every frame) with a sigh. “The man says ‘Go,’ I got to do what the man says,” he explains, “We’re living in this man’s world, ain’t we?”
Ashby’s milieu agrees — It’s this man’s world, indeed. In 104 minutes, Hal Ashby crafts one of the most corrosive and aggressively sad masterpieces of the decade, sneaking mirth among its hopelessness. What else can you do when they really stick it to you?
“The Last Detail” is now streaming on HBO Max.