Comic Cowboys and Other Heroes

Unusual roles for well-known actors this month: everything from John Wayne as cop to Mel Brooks as Governor?

THE LAST DETAIL

THE LAST DETAIL IS WELL-INTENTIONED, but much like its central character, never quite lives up to its full potential. The story, based on a first novel by Darryl Ponicsan, concerns a familiar enough situation: three footloose sailors with money to spend and time to kill. The telling difference is that one of them is handcuffed. “Bad-Ass” Bud-dusky and another old salt named Mule (Otis Young) are assigned the shit detail of escorting a young recruit to the Naval brig in Portsmouth. There he will serve eight years for filching $40 from the commissary’s polio contribution box, the severity of the sentence owing to the C.O.’s wife’s love of March of Dimes.

Mule and Bad-Ass initially badger the frightened recruit, living up to their expected roles, but soon an all-too-predictable traveling encounter group evolves. They find themselves feeling sorry for the shafted kid (Meadows); he in turn comes to think of them as his two and only friends.

Jack Nicholson salvages an otherwise mediocre movie as Bad-Ass Buddusky, a career signalman with the emotional range of a bright but shallow adolescent: verbally inclined to arranging profanities into an infinite variety of put-downs, sexually oriented to finding a whore in every port, and physically given to proving his manhood by periodically unleashing the bully that crouches inside him like a watchdog.

If anyone but Nicholson were playing the role, I would probably dislike him; but he succeeds in making raunchy ole Bad-Ass appealing even when he’s making yodeling-in-the-canyon sex allusions or doing semaphore signals clad in his boxer shorts. But Nicholson can’t quite make him convincing. He somehow seems too good for a man of his behavior. I kept feeling that anyone so obviously smart and conspicuously good-looking would prefer being a Midnight Cowboy hustler rather than a Navy “lifer.”

As Mule, Young is convincing enough, but he never quite emerges as a full-fleshed person. He is chiefly the voice of reason, a poor black from Bogalusa’s slums who claims the Navy “is the best thing that ever happened to me” and is militant only in his determination not to let Buddusky get him in trouble.

Meadows, the puffy-cheeked, gap-toothed prisoner, is brilliantly played by Randy Quaid. But he’s been so watered down from the novelistic character he’s based on that I had trouble caring about his plight. Like Gomer Pyle, he’s a little too good to be true. When his friendly guards permit Meadows an unauthorized visit to his mother, the ramshackle filth of her living room, strewn with whiskey bottles, screams “dumb poor white trash” a little too obviously.

By now, Bad-Ass and Mule are determined to award the kid a cram course in The Good Life as they see it, before delivering him to the brig. These include the old macho stand-bys: battling, boozing and balling. Here, director Ashby faces the thorny problem of how to show bored people trying to have fun without boring an audience trying to have fun. He fails. Not only are the adventures a little too deliberately orchestrated to ring true, but scene after scene of beer cans and banal conversation prove more anaesthetizing than enlightening.

The best of these adventures, Meadows’ first trip to a whorehouse, is handled with understated good taste. The few minutes of soft light and soft voices provide a much-needed respite from the ugly hard-edged cityscapes and dingy railroad stations that make the rest of the picture such a visual downer.

I feel uncomfortable about being disappointed in The Last Detail . Because it is obviously a “man’s” movie, I worry that if I’d been born a boy, done some time as a WAVE, or lived my life in the tattoo-and-plastic-Jesus culture, I might appreciate it more. Maybe so, but still I know I’d leave the theater feeling it could have been done better.

It’s another case of the book being superior to the film. All the things that didn’t quite jell in the film come together perfectly in the book. For example, as the movie opens, Bad-Ass is reading a girlie magazine; in the book, it is a copy of Camus’ The Stranger . That subtle distinction in complexity of character is what makes the book very good and the film merely fair.

BLAZING SADDLES

I HAD FUN SEEING BLAZING Saddles . Not just for its humor, which often falls flatter than the Edwards Plateau, but for its nostalgic reminders of those old primitive westerns when cowboys toted guitars as well as guns, and horses had Christian names; before arty directors and method actors perverted the Saturday afternoon oater.

Not that those old westerns were any good … they were atrocious. But like all nostalgia films- Summer of ‘42, Paper Moon, American Graffiti -Blazing Saddles recalls a time when things seemed better, even if they weren’t: when Roy Rogers was plugging outlaws instead of fast food franchises, and you could tell a man’s morals by his mustache.

Veteran gag-writer Mel Brooks, who scored, directed and co-scripted Blazing Saddles , was probably on more of an ego trip than a sentimental journey, but I thank him just the same. The show opens with a great booming western ballad (He rode a blazing saddle/He wore a shining star!) opening onto a wide-open prairie and a high blue sky. And I was hooked. So much did I want to stay hooked that I laughed at routines so lame they needed help making exits. Oh, a lot of the film really is funny, but it’s the mood furnished by the first few minutes that made me receptive to the ensuing silliness.

Blazing Saddles is not content merely to poke fun at westerns; the western itself becomes a vehicle for funning anything Brooks chooses; from Cecil B. DeMille to the Mills Brothers, Howard Johnson to the big Hollywood studios.

Brooks is equally arbitrary in the brands of humor he uses to accomplish his lampoonings: re-cycled vaudeville, slapstick (with pies), ethnic jokes (venturing the no-no “nigger”), even a generous

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