Viking Night: The Last Detail
By Bruce Hall
January 3, 2012
With every immutable truth often comes an equally baffling riddle. For everything that makes perfect sense, there's another thing that makes absolutely none. For every sensible physical law in the universe, somewhere there's a black hole inside an asteroid. For every great man there are ten more who should be, but aren't. It's a crying shame, but if you want proof of it, look no further than The Last Detail. Not only is this one of my all time favorite films, but it also represents a unique existential conundrum unto itself. But it isn't because of anything overtly philosophical. It's because within The Last Detail exists two polar extremes. The immutable truth here is that Jack Nicholson is a damn fine actor, and he turns in a damn fine performance. But the black hole inside the asteroid is Randy Quaid, who is a minor revelation. His career is filled with curious peaks and valleys and in the end, I couldn't have been more disappointed to discover that Eddie Griswold is pretty much who he really is.
But this isn't for me to judge. What is for me to judge is what a terrific experience this movie is. If you aren't familiar with it, don't feel bad. Most people are into new releases, so if a flick is older than six months and they haven't seen it, chances are they never will. And even if you're a casual movie buff, you may still have needed someone to refer you. In the days before the World Wide Web it wasn't so easy to stay on top of an actor's filmography. I like Jack Nicholson a lot, but like most great actors his recent work often overshadows the little gems of yesteryear. For the record, I like Randy Quaid too. But like most celebrities who are allegedly being stalked by an international cabal of elite assassins, their troubles have a tendency to obscure the old resume.
So, let's set the Way Back Machine to 1973 and re-live the good old days, shall we?
Back then there was no such thing as political correctness. This sometimes made movies better, and more often made things worse if you were in the Navy and had a case of sticky fingers. This is what happens to Larry Meadows (Quaid), a young sailor who is sentenced to eight years in military prison for trying to lift 40 dollars from a polio donation box. This is sick and wrong for two reasons. One, because in the civilian world, that gets you maybe 40 hours of community service. The second reason is because they cured polio back in 1952. If anyone should be arrested it's the scumbag who's still collecting donations for it. This makes me think there may still be money in smallpox.
At any rate, ordered to transport Meadows to prison are Petty Officers Bill “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mullhall (Otis Young). Buddusky and Mulhall are a couple of hardscrabble guys who owe their very existence to Uncle Sam, so they reluctantly accept the assignment, if only for a chance to get off base and see the big city. The sailors are given five days to haul the prisoner from Norfolk, Virginia to the Naval Prison at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For those of you who failed geography, that's one week to travel about five hundred miles. Buddusky and Mullhall concoct a cunning plan to take a train straight up, pool their travel money and spend the rest of the week partying. Your tax dollars at work, people.