Even though Jack Nicholson gets top billing and the most bombastic role in The Last Detail, Otis Young has the harder job. He’s got to temper Nicholson, both for the sake of the audience and of the narrative. The film introduces the two men simultaneously–Robert Towne’s script almost immediately establishes an unspoken bond between the two, even though it takes them well through the first act to get to know each other.
The Last Detail is an atypical buddy picture for many reasons, with the two buddies getting thrown together being one of the more immediate ones. But more, the film is practically a parenting outing. Nicholson’s the crazy, fun dad, Young’s the responsible mother (who you don’t want to cross) and Randy Quaid’s the kid. Of course, Nicholson and Young are escorting Quaid to the stockade.
Along the way, Nicholson and Young do not go on an odyssey of self discovery. Their efforts in humanizing Quaid don’t lead to big momentous changes in their lives. Towne is reserved, saving the expository character development scenes for when Quaid’s doing something else (sometimes just napping); it makes those scenes, with Nicholson calm as opposed to manic and Young not fretting as much, rather special.
Director Ashby and editor Robert C. Jones create a tranquil, quiet quality for the film, using fades to guide the viewer’s attention. Great photography from Michael Chapman and a rather good score from Johnny Mandel.
All the acting’s great. Detail is muted, precise and often devastating.
Directed by Hal Ashby; screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Robert C. Jones; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Gerald Ayres; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Jack Nicholson (Buddusky), Otis Young (Mulhall), Randy Quaid (Meadows), Clifton James (M.A.A.), Carol Kane (Young Prostitute) and Michael Moriarty (Marine O.D.).