Navy man Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) was enjoying a quiet nap until he was told to report to a higher ranking officer (Clifton James) for his detail. He wasn't the only one either, as "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) is there when he reluctantly arrives at the office to receive his orders. It seems they both have to escort a young prisoner, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to military jail where he will spend the next eight years. Wondering what he has done to deserve such a sentence, Buddusky and Mulhall discover that the sentence is down to petty theft: Meadows stole the grand total of forty dollars from a polio charity box, and as the charity is the pet project of the commanding officer's wife the punishment is strict. However, when they meet Meadows, it dawns on them that jail is the last thing he needs...
Nowadays we can take swearing in films for granted, but when Robert Towne's wrote the script for The Last Detail, taken from Darryl Ponicsan's novel, he peppered the story with strong language of a kind unheard of in such density in an American film. This lends the production a real life air, as you wouldn't expect sailors to be speaking in tones of terrible politeness, but funnily enough the Navy wasn't impressed and refused to co-operate with the filmmakers. However this may have been more to do with the anti-establishment theme that gradually arises from the characters' journey, and specifically seasoned military men Buddusky and Mulhall's consciousness raising that occurs, leaving them seriously dissatisfied by the end.
The journey that the three men embark on is a cross country one, and once they board the bus Meadows' guards take a little time to get to know their charge. He is an eighteen-year-old innocent, not so much innocent of the crime he has been convicted of, but naive to the ways of the world; when Buddusky and Mulhall are told by him that he never even got away with the money but was apprehended before he had removed his hand from the box they can scarcely believe his bad luck and idiocy. Mulhall may wish to keep Meadows at arm's length, but Buddusky feels more protective towards him and for the handful of days they spend together, takes him under his wing.
Nicholson is the standout in the cast, earthy, foul mouthed but simmering with undirected emotions beneath the surface - it's one of his very best performances. That's not to dismiss his co-stars, as both Young (why didn't his career take off after this?) and Quaid are excellent, yet don't quite shine as much as Nicholson who tends to dominate the screen, and he's in just about every scene, which helps. If there's a problem with The Last Detail, it's that without the strong acting it would seem even more of a doodle than it is, as much of the plot is given over to the three men wandering about, rambling, and at one point getting drunk on what seems like a hundred cans of beer.
Predictably, the guards feel the need to make a man of Meadows and so escort him to a whorehouse where he is initiated by bored prostitute Carol Kane, but this sequence, with its dingy surroundings, lacks significance, even futile. Earlier on, they stumbled upon a new age religious meeting that caught the imagination of Meadows while the other two were unimpressed, and he receives his own chant which he thinks will magically cure his worries if he says it often enough - more proof of his lack of direction and the hopelessness of his situation. It's only in the latter stages that a sense of righteous anger is felt, where Buddusky and Mulhall grow powerlessly frustrated with a system that would put away a lost cause like Meadows, a system they are inextricably a part of, when what he really needs is guidance. Music by Johnny Mandel.
Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.