Two bawdy, tough looking navy lifers - "Bad-Ass" Buddusky, and "Mule" Mulhall - are commissioned to escort a young pilferer named Meadows to the brig in Portsmouth. Meadows is not much of a thief. Indeed, in his late teens, he is not much of a man at all. His great crime was to try to steal forty dollars from the admiral's wife's pet charity. For this, he's been sentenced to eight years behind bars. At first, Buddusky and Mulhall view the journey as a paid vacation, but their holiday spirits are quickly depressed by the prisoner, who looks prepared to break into tears at any moment. And he has the lowest self-image imaginable. Buddusky gets it into his head to give Meadows a good time and teach him a bit about getting on in the world. Lesson one: Don't take every card life deals you. Next, he teaches Meadows to drink, and, as a coup de grace, finds a nice young whore to instruct him in lovemaking. Mule, who worries aloud about his own position with military authority, seems pleased ... Written by
Jack Nicholson is a performer with the rare ability to completely immerse himself in a chosen role and convince the audience of the stark reality of his performance. Playing Navy Signalman First Class Billy "Badass" Buddusky in Hal Ashby's 1973 film rendition of Darryl Ponicsan's novel, "The Last Detail" is a sterling example of that uncommon talent. Rough-edged but understanding, crude but compassionate, Buddusky and fellow "lifer" Gunner's Mate First Class "Mule" Mulhall (skillfully portrayed by Otis Young) are "detailed" as armed Shore Patrol guards to escort a young sailor, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Va. to a naval prison in Portsmouth, NH in order to serve an eight-year sentence after being convicted at a court-martial of petty theft.
The five-day journey northward is an adventure for all three. Sympathizing with Meadows's plight, apprised of his utter naivete and realizing his sentence far exceeds the severity of the offense, Buddusky and Mulhall conduct their version of a cram course in traditional male rights of passage--ranging from a drunken spree in Washington, D.C. to duking it out with Marines in New York City and getting their charge sexually initiated with a Boston prostitute--if for no other reason than to give him some taste of what he will not be experiencing for a long time and to teach him in some small way to assert himself as an individual.
Darryl Ponicsan's novel (which hit the racks at practically the same time the film had been released--the book's ending is quite different and, to me, is much less believable than the film's) was initially hailed as a polemic against what many believed was the cold indifference of the military establishment. However, since that time, it has been judged more a compelling "slice of life" drama about the complexities of everyday human behavior and how it is shaped by our own decisions and by entities beyond our immediate purview. And, more importantly, it forces us to think about how our ever-more-complicated society is increasingly unable to find ways to help its young people constructively mark transition into adulthood.
"The Last Detail" is a sadly overlooked but superb blend of pathos, ribald bittersweet humor, hard-edged '70s realism and insightful and subtle human drama, one that brashly and subtly brought back many personal memories of my Navy hitch and a work that says something to all of us by merely focusing upon a small "detail" of a sadly overlooked and unappreciated decade that was alternately (and simultaneously) bleak yet hopeful.
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