Overshadowed by his high-profile leads in such '70s landmarks as Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jack Nicholson's remarkably complex turn in this raucous yet ultimately somber road movie also remains his most underrated. As the snarling, hedonistic, but emotionally lost Navy lifer Billy Budduskey, Nicholson teams with fellow sailor "Mule" (Otis Young) on a seemingly simple duty of escorting a naive thief (Randy Quaid) from the Norfolk naval base to the brig in Massachusetts. Though polar opposites--Mule is hard-nosed Navy, while the first image of Budduskey shows him asleep in a chair, tattered and tattooed, gripping a near-empty bottle of cheap wine--both sailors learn that the 18-year-old will lose eight years of his life for a petty theft, and agree to cram his lost years into one booze-, sex-, and drug-infested (lost) weekend. From bizarre religious ceremonies to drunken nights in New York brothels, the two sailors provide all the sins they can think of, while their charge, Meadows, appears to go along just to please his escorts. The older sailors are definitely having more fun, essentially projecting all of their own lost freedom onto Meadows. The young sailor's ultimate doom mirrors the daily prison lived by both Budduskey and Mule, and director Hal Ashby hangs a decisive air of bleakness and claustrophobia over screenwriter Robert Towne's profane humor. When the question of whether to let the poor teenager escape ultimately arrives for the two sailors, the final decision is relatively pointless: in or out of prison, all three men are trapped by the Establishment and their own lost free will. --Dave McCoy
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