Jack Nicholson's present image, of an elderly actor having comfortably sold out, has a way of ironically investing his authentically legendary run of films, roughly spanning from Easy Rider to The Border, with an even greater emotional urgency than may have initially been intended. It's startling to remember what a heartbroken live wire the actor once was, how often he chose characters that spoke directly to the baby-boomer fear that their various rebellions wouldn't come to much. Every classic Nicholson film follows a strikingly similar trajectory of the outcast who either lives by settling for casual tragedy or dies out of wounded stubbornness. Of all the great actors to emerge from the rich period of American films that kicked off in the late 1960s and unceremoniously concluded in the mid 1970s, Nicholson stood apart as the ideal embodiment of that era's weirdly sexy resignation.
The Last Detail is so perfectly tailored to the star that it could've been mapped out from a Pythagorean theorem. U.S. Navy petty officers Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned a shore-patrol detail in which they're to escort sailor Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Virginia to a naval prison near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It's apparent that Buddusky and Mulhall have long ago lost whatever zeal or optimism they may have felt toward their profession, and they clearly see this assignment as a way to screw around for a few days. The plan is simple: With a week to accomplish a task that should reasonably take two days, Buddusky and Mulhall will bust ass getting Meadows to jail so they can take their time drinking and eating through their per diems on the way back.
The broad strokes of that premise were old hat by 1973 when The Last Detail was released, and it doesn't take a sophisticated viewer to assume that Buddusky and Mulhall will gradually grow to empathize with Meadows and alter their plan (somewhat) accordingly. Director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne employ a classic road-movie narrative that allows them to string together a number of self-contained vignettes that elaborate on the characters' mounting frustrations and feelings of futility. Buddusky and Mulhall affect a cynical seen-it-all demeanor, but Meadows, who's going to jail for a ridiculous charge, forces them to attach a human face to their government's absurd callousness and hypocrisy.
The Last Detail resembles a number of films Nicholson made around the same time, particularly Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. All three observe Nicholson's characters as they gradually shed a layer of affected disinterest, as they learn, too late, that indifference will only pave the way for greater government corruption with speedier efficiency. But Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, despite their respective merits, haven't aged well, as they both revel in a self-pitying fatalism that scans as a generation's ultimate refusal to own up to its own mistakes.
The Last Detail is less sentimental and spiked with a disconcertingly bleak sense of humor; it's ultimately about two worker bees who elect to cover their own asses rather than stick their neck out for a potential systematic casualty. The film has an engagingly profane, scruffy looseness, a hallmark of Ashby and Towne's careers, that undermines the conventions of the narrative. Every major scene goes on longer than one expects, and often to considerable effect. Moments that find the three men sitting in a cheap hotel room talking pussy and drinking themselves into oblivion are initially funny, but they go on long enough to reveal, without fuss, the loneliness and quiet despair that often fuels such encounters. And an interlude between Meadows and a whore (Carol Kane) is unforgettable—one of American cinema's great tender scenes of sexual disillusionment.
Like a number of Ashby and Towne's respective films, The Last Detail ages well because it appears to retrospectively explain why so many baby boomers disappointed themselves. The pragmatic answer would appear to be that rebellion, in the face of almost absolute failure, is simply exhausting, and the anger can't sustain itself if it isn't fueled by the immediate threat of demise. The government will always eventually win so, fuck it, let's drop the kid off at the jail and grab a beer.