“Y’know, kid… you got a helluva knack for killin’ a conversation.”
Jack Nicholson steals the show (once again) as “Badass” Buddusky, a Navy “lifer” who is assigned the task, along with “Mule” Mulhall, of transporting eighteen year old kleptomaniac Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a military prison hundreds of miles north of their Naval base in Virginia.
Shocked at the harsh news that Meadows has received a sentence of 8 years for attempting to steal forty dollars from a polio charity box, and feeling sympathetic towards his cause, Buddusky persuades Mulhall (Otis Young) to give the kid a proper send off. After lots of drinking, lots of partying and a fair amount of fist fighting, Meadows finally becomes a man. However, his sudden metamorphosis doesn’t help to hinder the inevitability of his destination.
I have simply ran out of superlatives for Jack Nicholson. The man can take any role offered to him and make it a role that only he could play. Not many actors can do that. Much of what he does here sets him up for what I believe to be his best performance to date as R.P.McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. The reason why he can portray the foul mouthed, cigar puffing, beer swigging, alpha male so perfectly is because you can imagine that Nicholson’s real life isn’t a million miles away.
Nicholson’s macho-man with a heart is perfectly complimented by Randy Quaid’s shy, nervous and socially awkward performance along with Otis Young’s cynic straight man who just wants to get this “motherfuckin’ chicken shit detail” done and dusted.
It’s billed as a comedy/drama and while there weren’t many side splitting, laugh out loud moments, there were plenty of funny and charming encounters. Mostly intimate scenes when they were drunk and at their most vulnerable. Something as simple as deciding which bed they slept in or trying to chat up a girl at a semi-cultish party who obviously isn’t interested actually proved to be character defining moments despite their seemingly lack of importance.
It’s also full of tender, heartbreaking moments that serve as a reminder to the three men that this is still a job that needs to be implemented fully to the end and that despite their growing friendship over the course of their adventure, the conclusion to their journey will remain with Meadows being locked behind a closed cell. The scene in which Meadows get a watch inscribed with “Chief Signalman” (as a tribute to Buddusky) is especially nice.
An earlier scene in which a bartender refuses to serve Meadows resulting in Buddusky’s sudden outburst superbly sets up the impending turn of events. Buddusky signals himself as the leader of the group and also somewhat of a big brother type figure to Meadows. What starts off as a warm case of pity (after the visit to Meadows mother’s shit-hole of a house) slowly turns into something more of a camaraderie and eventually, in Meadows case anyway, best friendship. Buddusky’s ability to give courage and strength to Meadows actually leads the “prisoner” to attempt to run away towards the forthcoming climax of the movie.
The end is tragic in the sense that no words are spoken between the three. Meadows is hauled away like any other prisoner ready to serve time and just like that, their detail is over. The casualness of that scene almost wipes out everything that we’ve just witnessed beforehand, but thankfully Buddusky and Mulhall, in staying with the theme of the movie, stand up against an authority figure at the brig in Portsmouth when quizzed about their ability to do the job in question. It’s just one last chance to feel free again before they return to the everyday grind of a Naval lifer.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter