Title: The Last Detail
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Hal Ashby
Screenwriter: Robert Towne
based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan
Music: Johnny Mandel
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Shoving injustice right in its audience’s face, Hal Ashby’s THE LAST DETAIL is an ethos-reflecting, profanity-riddled road trip of the titular detail – Navy signalman Buddusky (Nicholson) and seaman Mulhall (Young) are assigned to escort a young offender Meadows (Quaid) from Norfolk, Virginia to Portsmouth Naval Prison near Maine – that conveys hearty commiserations to the downtrodden and expresses remonstrance to the powers that be.
An 18-year-old Meadows is unfairly subjected to a draconian 8-year sentence and dishonorable discharge for pilfering (in vain) 40 dollars, but Badass” Buddusky and “Mull” Mulhall can do nothing to rescind the penalty, since they are self-professed Navy “lifers”, what they can actually do, is to show Meadows a good time before he is cooped up, and Robert Towne’s scintillating script doesn’t mince words of Meadows’ bleak prospect in the brig, for a callow and innocuous boy like him, he will never pull through his pending trials and tribulations as the same person. A lofty but ponderous Randy Quaid superbly telegraphs Meadows’ congenial naiveté in his Oscar-nominated coup de foudre for Actor in a Supporting Role (though fairly speaking, the triad should have shared an even-steven co-leading designation), and transubstantiates it to a force of unaffected pull that absolutely evokes compassion from even the most callous heart.
The trio’s hijinks entail the usual suspects of benders and attempts of making whoopee (the latter is underwent through an incredible Nichiren chant hookup and concluded with an altruistic gesture to put the kibosh on Meadow’s virginity in a house of ill repute), and more thoughtful arrangements including a visit to Meadow’s mother, whose non-appearance and the empty house quietly but pungently speak volumes of Meadow’s ill-bred backstory, plus a wintry barbecue as Meadows’ last request, where he executes his first and final crack of running away, then the ending expunges all the prior camaraderie to a terse farewell, no words, no looking back, Meadows is manhandled to a future shrouded by masculine turpitude, just like that and Ashby steely disobliges audience’s anticipation of a sentimental half-way house, presents the red-tape asperity in its stead, Navy or Marine, they are all cut from the same rotten cloth.
Nicholson chalks up Cannes’ BEST ACTOR laurel and parlays it into an Oscar nomination with his cynical ebullience and biting disillusion that encapsulates the signs of its times, concealing his profound distress that an innocent spirit is going to be snuffed and the damning incapacitating feeling that he can do nothing about it. Otis Young, also gives a thoroughly credible job as the contrarian-turned-sympathizer with a more reserved and practical make-up, provides a sober perspective from the sidelines (often tallies with the camera arrangements centering a barnstorming Nicholson).
When the snare drum rolls in the end, one wonders what does “last” stands for in its title, apparently it doesn’t mean “final” because both men have no alternative but return to the military service, yet as a cinematic travelogue cogently and frankly registers America’s ennui and angst in the post-Vietnam War era, “least suitable” might find more grounds in its context.