Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Last Detail

Every now and then I need a reminder of why we all put up with Jack Nicholson and his obnoxious sunglasses. Seeing “The Last Detail” was a good reminder that this guy can wear whatever he wants. Actually, all three lead actors give amazing performances in this film by Hal Ashby, director of dark classics like “Harold and Maude” and “Being There.” My initial take on this film is that it would be a typical road-trip film, with lots of laughs and hijinks. Instead, it is pretty much a downer, although paradoxically it is not depressing, and there are plenty of laughs to be had. In that respect it reminds me of other Jack Nicholson films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Easy Rider.”

In “The Last Detail,” sailors “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are detailed to transport a young seaman to military prison. Seaman Meadows (Randy Quaid) is set to serve an 8-year sentence for a petty crime that pissed off a petty base commander. As the trip north begins, he is understandably quiet and downcast, but he seems surprisingly resigned to his fate for a man who is about to spend his early twenties behind bars. Buddusky even points out, “He’s probably secretly glad. In the outside world there’s all this bad stuff that can happen to you. Now he doesn’t have to worry, cause the worst thing has already happened.” For their part, Buddusky and Mulhall are delighted to have an easy detail, with a whole week off-base to do a job that should only take two days. They start the trip looking forward to the fun they will have after they drop off their charge, but it isn’t long before they are moved by the pathos of Meadows’ unjust situation. Bit by bit the straightforward train trip degenerates into a series of side trips as the two guards try to show Meadows as much fun as possible before he goes to prison. The three get drunk, chase skirts, scrap with Marines, and visit a brothel. They even walk in on a Japanese chanting ritual, which seems to impress Meadows more than all the rest. By the trip’s end, Meadows is no longer resigned to his fate; he now understands what he is giving up for the next 8 years, and we are left wondering if his new friends’ gift of a few days’ partying will help him or cause him more pain.

Throughout the story, scenes of humor and camaraderie are occasionally balanced with the sobering reality of what waits for Meadows at the trip’s end. As their time runs out, the mood gradually grows darker, as summed up in Mulhall’s declaration, “I hate this detail. I hate this mother-fucking, chicken-shit detail!”

Just as “Cuckoo’s Nest” explores the frustration of people caught up in the machinery of a mental institution, “The Last Detail” is a great story about basically good men facing the senseless injustice of the military machine. What sets the film apart from many other modern military movies is that it doesn’t take the lazy approach of demonizing the military. It recognizes that injustices occur not because the military is evil, but because it is a large machine in which there is no mechanism to ensure that general decency will win out over personal pettiness.

“The Last Detail” also breaks down well as an allegory for our lives. We are all on a trip to someplace we’d rather not think about, which is death. To cheer ourselves up along the way we make some friends, get drunk, get laid, and seek solace in religion. But no matter how much fun we have, there’s a major buzzkill waiting at the end of the line.

4 out of 5 stars.

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