For Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid), life in the Big Easy is smooth. He’s got his big smile (he’s Dennis Quaid, after all) and his nice suits. He’s a police Lieutenant whom everybody in the department likes and trusts, and he trusts them. He identifies bodies at a glance, has crime bosses brought to his office with a phone call. The Big Easy, a nickname for New Orleans, is just that for him: easy.
It’s made less so with the transplant Assistant District Attorney Anne Osborn (Ellen Barkin). She’s on the anti-corruption beat. For McSwain, there’s corruption, like taking bribes, and then there’s “a certain way of doin’ things.” Like getting in front of lines at popular restaurants and leaving without paying the bill. Also, he takes bribes.
He thinks he can charm this new prosecutor into seeing things his way. And even if she’s not impressed with his attitude, she can’t question his policework. He’s thorough, knows the town and all the players. He comes from a long line of cops. Hell, his captain (Ned Beatty) is dating his mom, and might even marry her one of these days.
Then he gets caught on camera apparently taking a bribe from a bartender. The case even makes it to trial. But he weasels out of that, too, and expects she’ll be fine with it… even when she was the one prosecuting the case. All the while a war between different drug cartels is piling up bodies on the street.
The Big Easy is an ’80s movie that walks the line between several genres. Of course it’s a crime movie, and it begins mostly like a comedy (with a tinge of ’80s erotic thriller). Ellen Barkin plays Ann straight, but Dennis Quaid is just about chewing the scenery with his extremely broad Yat accent and sly smile. But he’s downright subtle compared to some of the other characters haunting the police station.
Early on, The Big Easy is all about McSwain’s casual competence and acceptance of that “certain way of doin’ things.” But the film does a neat tonal shift as it progresses and McSwain becomes less sure that casual corruption is harmless. And that it might not be as easy to get out of it as it was to get into it.
The Big Easy was written by Daniel Petrie Jr., who also wrote Beverly Hills Cop. The director, Jim McBride, has a documentary background. There are a few sequences in the film, like with the zydeco band at the restaurant or with McSwain’s family BBQ celebrating his victory in court that have a loose documentary-like feel to them.
Of course, being set in New Orleans, the locations are filled with “flavor.” Accents, jazz bands playing in the street. There’s even a little voodoo.
The film’s pace is fairly lax, with only a couple of real action sequences. There’s a climactic gunfight on a boat where McSwain’s only got a flare gun. An earlier foot vs. car chase sequence is pretty cleverly helmed. But it’s not an action blockbuster, it’s not a genius crime thriller. The Big Easy is an engaging movie about an odd couple, in the end.
It’s not the kind of movie that gets made anymore, because this sort of material is much more suited to modern TV. The sexiness, edginess, and violence that could only be found on the big screen in the ’80s is routinely streamed to our boxes. I think it’s a bit of a shame because the atmosphere and small scale story of The Big Easy is something that works best as relatively brief experience. I don’t want to spend 10 hours to get to the same place, but just much more slowly paced and overstuffed.
The back of the box description calls it a neo-noir. I don’t think it fits the genre. Noirs are hard edged. The Big Easy is glib. It has some decent emotional moments in the third act. But it doesn’t have the toughness and judgment I associate with a noir.
The Big Easy is, like Dennis Quaid’s character, very comfortable with itself. The crime story is just okay. The passion between the characters is spicy but not overwhelming. The Big Easy is as fine with itself as Quaid is with his very thick accent. It manages to take some broad performances and successfully shift into a more serious tone as its climax draws nearer. It’s fun, occasionally preposterous, always atmospheric.
The Big Easy has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. From what I can tell, this is the film’s debut on Blu-ray in the U.S. Extras include a commentary track by director Jim McBride (moderated by Douglas Hosdale) and some trailers.
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