Two hard-bitten Navy “lifers”, Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), are assigned shore patrol detail to escort baby-faced swabbie Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the Portsmouth Naval Prison. Meadows, it turns out, has landed eight years in the brig all for attempting to thieve forty bucks. Except it was forty bucks from the commanding officer’s wife’ polio donation can – a ginormous no no. He is made an example. And on the train Buddusky, disgusted by the injustice, asks Meadows questions, offers his help. Help to do what? Well, he never really makes it clear but it is clear there is not much he can do and the movie, directed by Hal Ashby in such a way as to accentuate the ceaseless cold, grey days and written by the great Robert Towne, drops it as a plot point.
Wait, what? When you have a guilty man who is not all that guilty the movie automatically becomes about his journey to innocence, yes? No. “The Last Detail” is tougher and bleaker, though with many foul-mouthed rays of sunshine mixed in. It’s a film in which two men turn into unlikely mentors to an unlikely protégé, and then, in the end, wonder if the protégé really learned anything or, if he did, what it really meant.
Randy Quaid, of course, has become the butt of many jokes with his bizarre legal wrangling of the last few years, fleeing the U.S. for Canada after skipping out on court hearings for an assortment of misdeeds and for fear that celebrity cult killers of some kind were hot on the trail of he and his wife. It is a truly stunning fall from grace. Some might argue he never really was in the good arms of grace but some might be surprised to learn he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work as Meadows. And it is almost jarring to see him in his early 20’s playing an 18 year old of jaw dropping naivety. He spends most of the movie shuffling about, not paying attention to or uninterested in his surroundings, and his height (he is 6’4) always makes him look out of place. One classic sequence finds him ice skating (he’s always wanted to) and Mulhall, bursting with laughter, hollers “He’s like a happy penguin!” And that is kinda how he looks – like a penguin dispatched from Antarctica and with no clue how to function in this strange society.
Buddusky, despite bearing the nickname “Badass” (did he earn it or did he just give it to himself, like The Schofield Kid?), empathizes with this clueless lug. To be sure, he has an unhealthy rage at his core but there is also a very weird, very untraditional sort of warmth that always shows through. He thinks Meadows deserves a good time before being shuttered away and is intent on providing it. Mulhall is slightly more regimental, but only slightly, every now and then barking about keeping to their schedule but always giving in without much of a fight.
The three men drink too much beer, get in brawls, have the least picturesque picnic of all time, and, adhering to standard code for these sorts of stories, Buddusky and Mulhall make sure their prisoner does not go off to the stockade without receiving the reward of his first sexual experience. These, of course, are meant to represent notches in Meadows’ belt, his journey from Boy to Man, and when he reaches the stockade he will be able to stand on his own.
But throughout the film clues are dropped that this is not your normal coming of age quest, from Buddusky lamenting “He don’t stand a chance in Portsmouth, ya know?” to the jaunty score Ashby continually lays over the film as hilarious counterpoint to images like the three swabbies giving a beating to some marines.
In the end, rather than toss back one last shot and decree “Now take me to jail”, when the end game becomes all too real for Meadows he reverts to the scared child inside, tucks tail and runs. He doesn’t make it far. He blunders and falls. Buddusky and Mulhall even give him a bruise or two in the heat of the moment.
They haul him of to prison and as they hand him off to the MPs who drag him away, Meadows looks an awful lot like the same oafish big kid he was when this journey began.
Buddusky and Mulhall strike back out for "shit city". The band strikes back up on the soundtrack. It's another cold, grey day. Nothing's changed, nothing will.