Jack Nicholson is an actor that can chew the scenery with the best of them. His career is unique in that he’s been universally adopted by moviegoers of all ages as this kind of distant family member. He’s that favorite Uncle who always gives you money when he visits, or that crazy cousin that loves to play practical jokes on your dad.
Regardless of anyone’s actual relationship to him, people just refer to the actor as “Jack.” Somehow, we as fans over the years have acquired the right to call him just by his first name. And along with that name comes an expectation. Mention to anyone that you’ve seen a film with “Jack” in it and regardless of the plot or the co-stars there will be a moment of familiarity. It’s an instant assumption that we all make by virtue of his presence in a movie.
The Last Detail is a 1973 film that stars “Jack”, and is equal parts comedy and equal parts drama. But what this Hal Ashby directed picture is wholly, is an underappreciated gem.
The plot is very basic. Two life-long sailors, Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, are given an assignment, a detail, to escort from their navy base to another naval prison a young sailor, Randy Quaid, who has been caught stealing money from a charity box.
The two guards are given more than enough time to get their naive thief to his new home in Portsmouth Naval Prison. But along the way, “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, Jack Nicholson, gets it into his head that the “kid” deserves a little going away party before he spends the next six to eight years in prison for his kleptomaniac habits.
Nicholson imbues his cigar-chomping, beer swilling, foul-mouthed, “swabby” (sailor) with an un-varnished honesty that reeks of experience. It’s a portrayal that is fully realized and the actor conveys a constant big brother concern that transforms instantly from compassion to anger, as he tries to tutor his young prisoner to the ways of the world.
Along the way the three companions, get drunk, get into a fight, and not surprisingly, visit a brothel. But unlike present-day films, this one isn’t accompanied by a constant pumped up soundtrack that rams wannabe pop hit after pop hit down your ears.
The movie doesn’t feature any “sexy” or exotic locations. It takes place during the winter along the East Coast of the United States, and for the entire film the three sailors are stomping their feet and hugging themselves just to try and keep warm.
Their hotel rooms are dumps, their beer drinking exploits end in messy hangovers, and their fights are sloppy and not choreographed works of art.
Near the end of the picture, the film takes a twist that by today’s standards would never have been portrayed.
Does the young man act honorably? Do his buddies figure out a way to get him out of his trouble? Do the two Navy lifers even learn anything from their experience? The film answers all of these question the only way true life can answer sometimes, and that’s with a loud – no.
Despite the friendship and the adventures that the three have shared there is still the sad fact that it has to end, and that one young man, because of a very stupid act, has to pay a large price.
The film is at times a bit of a rough ride, but it’s an honest one. And for that, along with the sight of seeing “Jack” light up his cigar in some very public places, it’s a ride well worth the taking.