Published on May 1st, 2015 | by Clint Davis
The Last Detail 
Summary: A rebellious road trip movie with equal parts attitude and heart. Jack Nicholson is pure excitement to watch, playing a restless Navy man charged with transporting a prisoner up the East Coast. The film feels loosely constructed and its tone is all over the place but there are a surprising number of touching moments buried in its mountain of curses.
R | 103 min.
Director: Hal Ashby
Screenplay: Robert Towne (based on Darryl Ponicsan’s novel)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid
Distribution: Columbia Pictures
Budget: $2.6 million | Box Office: $10 million
The U.S. Navy recently decided to dump its slogan, “A global force for good,” citing its unpopularity among both sailors and the general public. Perhaps a more celebrated tagline would have been, “We are the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”
That’s just one of the fantastically raucous lines of dialogue spewed by Jack Nicholson’s character Billy Buddusky in The Last Detail. But hardly anyone in the film calls Buddusky by his birth name — his friends call him “Badass.”
Badass, a longtime Navy man, is assigned to what he calls a “shit detail” in the opening scenes of the movie. He and fellow petty officer “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are tasked with transporting a young sailor with kleptomaniac tendencies from Virginia to a Naval prison in New Hampshire. Along the way, the two older officers decide to show their naive young companion, played by Randy Quaid, to a good time before he’s locked away.
The Last Detail isn’t a film that will leave you marveling at its composition but it’s a perfectly written and acted dramedy that you don’t want to end.
From a historical perspective, this movie is notable for several reasons. When it was released in 1973, it represented some of the rawest dialogue ever featured on screen. The lead characters, especially Nicholson’s, curse almost nonstop, adding an uncommon level of authenticity to the conversations for that era.
When screenwriter Robert Towne was asked by a studio executive to tone down the colorful language, he allegedly refused, saying, “This is the way people talk when they’re powerless to act; they bitch.” Towne’s script was nominated for an Academy Award; he lost, but would win an Oscar the following year for his flawless Chinatown screenplay.
Towne wasn’t the only member of the crew on The Last Detail to become a heavyweight. For director Hal Ashby, the film fell between two cult classics, 1971’s Harold and Maude and 1975’s Shampoo. Ashby was one of the original renegades of Hollywood comedy and in my opinion, The Last Detail represents the best work of his career. Manning the cameras was first-time cinematographer Michael Chapman, who would later serve in that role on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull — two of the most memorable-looking pictures of the era.
The success of The Last Detail hinges on its three lead characters and the actors playing them. While they wear the uniform throughout the film, these men do not represent the discipline and honor that is typified by the U.S. Navy. When the audience first sees Badass, he’s sleeping, slouched in an easy chair with a fifth of something strong within his reach. He looks like the kind of guy who got into the service simply for travel and tail.
You grow close to these characters as they grow to know each other better — and slowly you realize how emotionally attached you are to them. Nicholson and Quaid were each nominated for Oscars for their work in The Last Detail, the latter was only 23 years old and this role is much different than the character of cousin Eddie he became best known for in the Vacation series. Here, Quaid is quiet and unassuming. He drops no wacky lines and his character exhibits no outstanding characteristics other than a sweetness that shines through the thick cynicism that is the film’s foundation.
As usual, Jack Nicholson is simply fun to watch. Even when he’s playing aloof, he’s completely magnetic. If you never got into Nicholson’s early work, do yourself a favor and watch 1970’s Five Easy Pieces, 1974’s Chinatown, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and this film; these four performances represent some of the most exciting character work ever done by a single actor. Badass was a perfect character for him to play — according to Nicholson, it was the best role of his career — because it allows for a range of emotions, including a volatility that is bubbling under the surface through the entire movie.
It’s the late Otis Young that keeps things even in this small cast. He plays Mule with an ease that almost makes his performance forgettable. Young is the straight man in The Last Detail, keeping his emotions in check while Quaid cries in some scenes and Nicholson boils over. In real life, Young was a Marine veteran who didn’t land many big parts after this one; he died in 2001 after suffering a stroke.
The tone of The Last Detail is as wide ranging as its characters’ personalities. Ashby directs it with a loose hand, making the film feel unstructured at times. We simply follow these three men from place to place, conversation to conversation. This relaxed scene structure made the movie feel sloppy to me at times, which can certainly be a stylistic choice but I felt it could have been tightened up a bit in the editing room. I expected the bawdiness I got from The Last Detail because it’s the movie’s calling card but what I was surprised by was how solemn and heartfelt it was at times.
Badass is certainly a renegade type with little respect for authority but he shows a ton of heart. You can tell he feels for Quaid’s character Larry simply from looks Nicholson shoots toward the younger actor. A truly moving scene from the film comes when the trio visit Larry’s hometown. They stop to see the condemned man’s mother, but when they find she isn’t home, Larry says, “I don’t know what I would’ve said to her if she was here.” Boom. End of scene.
The Last Detail offers more gut punches than most comedies but I admire Towne’s script for keeping the story about these men, rather than trying to make a critique of the armed services. Politics do creep into the proceedings as Badass and Mule are disappointed during a stop in New York City when they find the local women would rather talk about ‘Nam and Nixon than climb into bed with a man in uniform. Times have changed a bit since they enlisted.
In one scene, the men come across a meeting of Buddhists — one of whom is Gilda Radner, two years before Saturday Night Live debuted — made up of white and black people chanting, smiling and telling stories. Larry is quite taken by the ceremony but Badass of course stands at the back of the room, laughing it off and calling them “homos.”
While it’s undoubtedly a movie made by and for outsiders, there is a tale of duty and responsibility buried beneath the barrage of “fuck”-bombs and empty cans of Schlitz. Mule and Badass never forget their detail, never abandon Larry and in the end, they make sure he gets to where he needs to be. They don’t hatch some scheme to bust out to Canada with him because both men enjoy the Navy life and frankly, it’s the only life either may be suited for.
One poignant line about the role of a soldier comes when a girls asks Mule how he felt about going to Vietnam, to which he replies, “The man says you go, you gotta do what the man says.”
There are no heroes in The Last Detail — just a group of men following orders and making the best of an assignment that carries no chance at valor.