The Last Detail finds a couple navy lifers – Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), better known as “Badass,” and Mulhall (Otis Young), better known as “Mule” – accompanying a young man called Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a prison in Portsmouth. Meadows is eighteen years old facing eight years in the brig. The length of his punishment is less to do with the crime itself (stealing $40 from a polio charity box) than who he upset; it turns out the “old man’s old lady” is devoted to her polio philanthropy.
Mule and Badass plan to rush their charge to Portsmouth as quickly as possible, giving them the rest of the week to enjoy themselves, goes about how you’d expect, at least initially. Badass takes a shine to the lad, who’s yet to experience what he regards as the finer things in life – drinking, fighting and fucking – and drags out the trip to teach the young man a lesson in these areas (and how to signal semaphore while he’s at it).
The Last Detail is often funny; one scene sees Meadows and his custodians end up at a hippy hangout where Mule is incessantly questioned on what he doesn’t like about Nixon while Badass brags about how he does a “man’s job” to a decidedly unimpressed Nancy Allen. The three leads, particularly Nicholson, play off one another well, creating a comic and dramatic tension that feels natural.
But this isn’t quite the ribald comedy you might expect. There are laughs to be had, but they’re undercut with a kind of uncomfortable denial. Meadows is facing an injustice and Badass and Mule are agents in his fate, conflicted between doing the “right thing” and doing their job. And not doing their job means – as they repeatedly remind one another – “their ass.” There’s not a scene in the film that doesn’t snap out of joviality at some point with the stark reminder that there’s no happy ending waiting at point B of this road trip.
Without being too overbearing about it, The Last Detail channels a nation’s futile anger into a small, unfair story. Amongst the humour, there’s kind of a muted tragedy at play, the same sense of powerlessness that ran through the America of the 1970s, led by a corrupt president and waging a pointless war in Vietnam. And so many people go along with it, accept the injustice because, at the end of the day, it’s their ass if they don’t.
Hal Ashby’s direction and Robert C. Jones’ editing combine to create a shaggy, loose atmosphere. Scenes go on for longer than you’d expect. We don’t just see the three men drinking and joking inside their motel room, we linger until they’re unpacking the fold-out beds to get some sleep. On the other hand, many cuts come sooner than you’d expect; with questions unanswered and conversations incomplete. These decisions produce an elliptical sense of temporality, as though we’re Meadows, trying to stretch every moment of freedom out as long as possible while it slips inexorably through our fingers.
Robert Towne wrote the screenplay for The Last Detail, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the film brought to mind a line from another Towne script, Chinatown: “As little as possible.” That line referred specifically to police reluctance to become involved in Chinatown disputes, but more broadly the notion of anonymity and lack of personal responsibility within an institution. Mule and Badass are good men, but their adherence to orders out of personal concern brings to mind another quote, from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”