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The Last Detail ***1/2
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Starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid
Directed by Hal Ashby


     The 70's were an acting awakening.  Some of the best performances ever laid down on film came from films and actors who defined the decade.  Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," 'The Godfather Part II," and "Dog Day Afternoon."  Robert Deniro in "Taxi Driver."  Jack Nicholson, the 70's quintessential actor.  He turned in great, legendary performances in "Five Easy Pieces," "Chinatown," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," earning a Best Actor Oscar for his work as R.P. McMurhpy in the latter.  That's enough to cement someone as the actor of the decade, but to acknowledge this distinction without calling Nicholson's work in "The Last Detail" to attention would be a crime.  His other films helped define the decade, but "The Last Detail" somehow escapes reviewers' and columnists' memories when  it comes time to write about Jack.  It's a shame because it truely is a masterpiece of acting.  
     "The Last Detail" serves as the first teaming of screenwriter Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson.  The next matching of these artists would become one of the most revered as one of the best films of the modern era of film, "Chinatown."  While that classic stands apart from their first work together, it is connected to its predecessor in the sense of great writing and acting.
     Director Hal Ashby, who famously made "Harold and Maude" two years before "Detail" in 1971, takes the chance to make an interesting character study and just runs with it.  Once he sends the characters in motion, they don't slow down until the last frame.  It's one thing to be able to direct a flashy melodrama involving cataclysmic events and stark heroes from the standard archtype.  It's something completely different, and perhaps more challenging, to take ordinary people and take us through a period in their lives, give us a glimpse of who these people are and maybe even why they are who they are.
Ashby does this with the right balance of jovial escapades and restrained moments of intimacy among the three main characters.  "Detail" was the first Ashby film that I have been able to see, but his the confidence he shows in it makes me want to see more.
     Stripped down to its skeleton, "Detail" is the story of two sailors taking a green, kleptomaniac, baby-faced Randy Quaid to the brig several states over.  That's it, if you can believe that.  There's no unforeseen illnesses, injuries, romance, or explosive relationships between relative, just genuine interactions between characters.  While that may be a formula for disaster for some films, "Detail" thrives through it.
     The most noticable assets to the film are the go for broke script and another captivating performance from Jack Nicholson.  But the film also holds an understated performance from Randy Quaid.  After seeing the film, if you wonder what was understated about Quaid's performance, consider the over the top performances he is known for (i.e. - the "National Lampoon's Vacation" series, "Independence Day," etc.).
     Nicholson plays Billy Buddusky, a sailor who is set in his commitment to the Navy.  He doesn't see anything wrong with hanging around the ships and bases until he's an old man.  When he, along with fellow sailor "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young), is asked to escort a young sailor (Quaid) to the brig, he hops to and sees the trip as a deserved vacation with the Navy paying.  Predictably, the two lifers start to like the naive kid.  They grapple with the kid's upcoming doom, eight years in the brig for an attempted theft of forty dollars.  That makes sense, everything happens as though it should, but there's more to "Detail" than that.
     The characters.  The characters in "The Last Detail" are all fully realized slices of life.  Each character is fleshed out to the point that we can see through them.  When Nicholson sits still, contemplating the last comment said to him, we know exactly what he's thinking.  When Quaid says the two sailors, men he had only known for less than a week, are his best friends, we don't doubt him for a second.  When Young lays down a gruff verbal smackdown on Buddusky, we know why and what he really wants to say.  To lead a cast to performances that are so alive is the mark of a great director, and Ashby did it.
     Kudos and other assorted chocolate-covered granola bars to Nicholson for his head on approach to Buddusky.  He lets his performance take a life of its own, an actor becoming a character.  He speaks in his low-pitched, ravel throated "Jack Nicholson" voice, but let's the character dictate the inflections.  When he lets loose, when he lets the bottled up domesticated lunacy of Buddusky leak out, he allows the emotions, the essence of the character out.  To even use the word "essence" in a review lends itself to pretentiousness, but it is merited here.  The pure aesthetic qualities of the character are right there for your viewing pleasure.  Oh, and trust me on this, it is a pleasure. 

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