Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Long on my list of can't-believe-I-haven't-seen-this 1970s films, 1973's "THE LAST DETAIL" is a showcase for the raw and wide-ranging acting ability of Jack Nicholson, as well as a deliberately subtle commentary on the values of the American military in the age of a losing war in Vietnam. Hal Ashby directed, two years after he won many plaudits (as well as slings & arrows from reviewers like Pauline Kael) for his previous film "Harold & Maude". It's ostensibly formatted as a "road movie", but rather than having the characters hit the road to find freedom and new insights, it's just the usual 1970s cinematic bummer all the way. It's why watching the films of this era fills me with rushing endorphins, heavy levels of seratonin and a sense of weird glee. They just don't make 'em like this anymore, do they?

Two bored navy lifers are assigned to take a fellow 18-year-old serviceman to navy jail in Portsmouth, NH for having stolen $40 from a high-ranking officer's wife's charity fund. They're incredibly reluctant to do so initially, and even more so once they get on the road with the intellectually-challenged and socially inexperienced greenhorn, played by Randy Quaid (fresh off his role in "The Last Picture Show"). Nicholson and Otis Young, who plays the other escorting sailor, quickly come to realize that this guy's circumstances – 8 years in jail and a dishonorable discharge – are preposterously unfair, and with Nicholson very much in the lead, they do what they can to make the young man "feel better". They get him drunk, laid and even try to let him visit his mom. With 5 days to get to Portsmouth and only 2 days actually needed, there's plenty of opportunity to raise hell in Washington DC, New York City and Boston on the way.

The sadness of the situation, and of these sailors' vocations and lives, permeates the film. Nicholson in particular plays the "sailor on shore leave" card to the hilt, and really just wants to make the most of his rare time away from his commanding officers and have some fun. Yet the fun is suffused with an anxiety about their place in the world. They visit a hippie chanting cult and are totally perplexed; then then follow a hippie girl to a party and get asked uncomfortable questions about Nixon and Vietnam. The character played by Otis Young is black, and to the film's credit, very little is made of this beyond a question or two from the hippies and a comment made by a redneck bartender ("The law says I have to serve him").

"The Last Detail" is perhaps a slight cut below some of the all-time 70s greats, what you might call a four-star film as opposed to five. Totally and absolutely worth seeking out on video if you get the chance and haven't waited forty years to see it like I have.