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Of the two collaborations between Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne in the early 70’s, Chinatown is the more celebrated, and rightly so. Under the directorial hand of Roman Polanski, that film redefined film noir by adding layers of depth and complexity previously unimagined. By comparison, The Last Detail is a far less ambitious effort; a scruffy mongrel that’s equal parts road movie, service comedy, and coming-of-age flick. But the film rises above its station thanks to impassioned performances, street-level realism and a razor-sharp – and very funny – script.
Based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, Towne’s screenplay was completed in 1970. Towne’s insistence on retaining the book’s salty language resulted in a two year delay, while Columbia Pictures waited in vain for him to tone it down. By 1972, Hollywood’s standards of decency had presumably relaxed enough to allow Towne’s draft to go into production unchanged (yes, believe it or not, this man of integrity is the same guy who "wrote" the brainless action spectacular Mission: Impossible 2). It is difficult to imagine the finished product without the rough-and-rowdy dialogue that virtually defines its swabbie heroes.
The movie’s plot is the barest of skeletons, a framework on which to hang episodic adventures and character-based observational humor. Seaman Larry Meadows, a teenage Naval recruit, is caught with his hand in the church poorbox. Not exactly a hanging offense, except that the charity in question is a pet cause of the base commander’s wife. Meadows’ sentence: eight years in a military prison and a "D.D." – dishonorable discharge. Lifers Billy "Badass" Buddusky and "Mule" Mulhall are assigned shore patrol duty – they must escort Meadows from their Norfolk, Virginia base to the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Given more than enough time to complete the task, Buddusky initially proposes a plan to hustle Meadows up to Portsmouth and take a leisurely, drunken path back home. But as their journey unfolds, Buddusky’s conscience begins to gnaw at him, and he sets about giving Meadows the time of his life before a large chunk of his life is taken away from him.
As if the nickname "Badass" weren’t enough of a tip-off, the presence of Jack Nicholson in the midst of his 70’s hot streak of rebel roles signals that Buddusky is something of a loose cannon on deck. Nicholson delivers one of the most ferociously energetic performances of his career. His Badass is good-humored but possessed of seemingly bottomless reserves of rage for both the Navy and the world outside of it, and Nicholson nails the scattershot anger that fuels his character’s tirades. Mulhall is more of a straight company man; he is devoted to the Navy that, for all its flaws, rescued him from a life of poverty. Otis Young lends a hard-edged dignity to a role that is, by design, the movie’s least flashy. Randy Quaid has been saddled with so many oafish roles in recent years, first-time viewers of The Last Detail may be surprised by the sensitivity he brings to the frightened young seaman. As the road trip progresses, Quaid brings his character’s latent curiosity and confidence to the surface, gently suggesting that there may be more to Meadows than his escorts imagined.
The loose structure of The Last Detail suits the laid back direction of Hal Ashby to a tee. Of all the major filmmakers of the period, Ashby is the least likely to be emulated by today’s young turks, mainly because his contributions to his own movies are difficult to define. His pictures all have a vaguely counter-cultural air, but one would be hard-pressed to pin down an Ashby "style"; he certainly was never a visual artist in the vein of Kubrick or Scorsese. Of his contemporaries, he is probably closest in spirit to Altman, though not in his league in terms of conveying a singular worldview. Ashby’s best work tends to rely heavily on strong collaborators – Towne and Warren Beatty in Shampoo, Jerzy Kosinski and Peter Sellers in Being There – and The Last Detail is no exception. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine any director containing Nicholson. This is his picture all the way; a showcase for a dazzling star turn from a great actor in his prime. He is the badass.