The Last Detail (1973), or Magic Jack, Otis The Amazing, And Randy The Magnificent

7 10 2009

You gotta give it to Jack Nicholson; when he’s good, he’s really good. I remember quite vividly seeing a preview for The Bucket List a little while back and thinking to myself, “Wow, Jack Nicholson acts like a geriatric character in a King Vidor flick nowadays! That movie looks like it’ll blow hard!” and heartily laughing to nobody because they none of my friends caught my witty King Vidor reference. But seeing today’s feature, The Last Detail, reminds me why Nicholson is not only a household name, but a real powerhouse when he wants to be. The Last Detail is what movies used to be, and still have the potential to be; edgy, in your face, and dangerous. A searing indictment of authority as well as a thoughtful look at the fruitlessness of youthful rebellion, The Last Detail glances across the cloying gulf of time and silently judges our moral character, wondering just how much we’ve learned in 30 years. I appreciate the confrontation from the past, as well as what it was trying to say in its present.

It begins with a simple theft. Young US Navy sailor Larry Meadows decides to make a bid for stealing $40 from the Commandant’s wife. It fails, he is caught, and for his insubordination, the fellow is given 8 years (!!!) in a Naval prison in New Hampshire. Pretty strict, huh? So Meadows is being escorted to the prison by two older sailors named Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky and “Mule” Mulhall. The pair isn’t exactly the best for the job of getting this job done by the book, though, because Buddusky finds this sentence egregious. He actually takes a liking to Meadows and decides to live it up with him for the week they have to complete the assignment, spending their per diem on booze and women. The three live fast and hard, snubbing their nose at the powers-that-be while getting lost in the big city. Meadows learns a lot on their trip, and the boys really open up to him as a friend, but when he decides to make a break for it, their loyalties to each other and the Navy are questioned.

What an interesting, meandering movie! It’s a buddy movie mixed with a message movie mixed with a journey movie, and all these things come together to make it a good movie. Based on a novel by Daniel Ponicsan, The Last Detail endures as a powerful movie that transcends its decade with its openly rebellious nature and its well-written, enthralling organic dialog. And it is QUITE organic, often brought up in the 70s as an example of Hollywood going “too far”. Some classics include:

Meadows: Drop your socks and grab your cocks, we’re going to a party.

Buddusky: If this kid gets pussy out of this, I’ll eat my flat hat. (!)

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Mulhall: Tell you what, mister citizen bartender. You can take your beers and shove ’em up your ass sideways. Can you dig it?

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Buddusky: You know what I like most about this uniform? The way it makes your dick look. (!!)

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Meadows (checking out a porn mag): Are they really doing that when they take that picture?

Buddusky: Well kid, there’s more things in this life than you can possibly imagine. I knew a whore once in Wilmington. She had a glass eye… used to take it out and wink people off for a dollar. (!!!!!!)

Well, don’t that just beat all! Just like a real sailor! It’s all about the rapport between the three leads. Otis Young plays Mulhall, the semi-serious black sailor with a sense of responsibility. I love how cool this dude is! It’s like the Navy enlisted Shaft! He’s a really wise fellow for a young Navy enlisted man, and some of Otis Young’s scenes really belie his age. Randy Quaid, so young here, is Meadows, and plays it with a sheepishness and a vulnerability that I’ve never seen from him before, and probably will never again. He’s actually pretty fantastic, and he reminds me of Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

But everyone remembers this movie because of Jack. Jack is the man here. I love Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky. He reminds me of a cool older brother; dispensing home-spun advice about women, beer, and life, while never admitting fault or a lack of knowledge. He’s ALWAYS got something to say here, and that’s the persona that made him a star. There’s something about that eye-rolling, cigar-smoking, profanity-using young bastard that will remain in the memory of Hollywood as long as it lives. Nicholson was a real Hollywood bad-boy, giving aging A-list ne’er-do-wells like Peter O’Toole and Marlon Brando runs for their money with his sadistic charm and his filthy, filthy mouth. Roles like this and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest defined his trademark sarcasm as well as his flashes of brilliance that would come less and less often in later years.

Hal Ashby created a winner with this one. He really helped define the movie-making process of directors’ rule in the 70s with films like Shampoo, Coming Home, Being There, and, of course, The Last Detail. There hasn’t been a movie in recent memory to come out with such a unique feeling to it, with such an air of adventure and fresh rebellion, to my knowledge, and if you know of one, please point me in its nearest direction. Randy Quaid, Otis Young, and Jack Nicholson gel together exceedingly well, and with dynamite sequences like the prayer scene in the clip above, or the infamous bartender fight, you might want to take the time to discover this one. I give The Last Detail 9 wink-jobs out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I take a look at a movie I needed to do a review of a LOOONNNGGG time ago. Get ready for my belated review of Inglourious Basterds! Until then!

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