Jack Nicholson, in one of his best roles, plays “Bad-ass” Buddusky (pictured), a veteran naval petty officer detailed, along with his black colleague “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), to escort an offender by bus and train from their base in Virginia to the harsh naval prison in Rhode Island.
The miscreant is a shy, naïve youngster, Meadows (Randy Quaid), who’s been given eight years for stealing $40 from his CO’s wife’s favourite charity.
The escorts, at first cynically detached, soon start feeling sorry for Meadows and decide to show him a good time in his last few days of freedom.
The camera follows them closely over a period of three days as they stopover to guzzle beer in a hotel bedroom, call in on the boy’s mother, inspect a religious gathering and treat Meadows to a prostitute, followed by a picnic in a park.
Buddusky is shaken when Mulhall tells him that there is no middle ground – that they ought to let Meadows go or finish their ugly job as quickly as possible.
But they continue to entertain Meadows until by the film’s end he has learned enough to do the one thing he never would have been capable of before – attempt an escape.
The project was considered a daring one for Columbia, and the studio initially baulked at the torrent of obscenities in the script (unlike the novel), which contained lines like, “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker.” In the first seven minutes, there were 342 ‘fucks’. . .
The studio refused to commit until writer Robert Towne cleaned it up. Towne refused to change a comma, and Jack Nicholson backed him up.