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The Big Easy (1987, USA)


Director: Jim McBride     Starring: Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, Ned Beatty

Taking its title from the nickname for New Orleans, The Big Easy sees easy going homicide Lieutenant Remy McSwain (Quaid) get caught between an escalating spree of gangland killings and the close scrutiny of Assistant District Attorney Anne Osborne (Barkin). Living up to the reputation of N’Orleans, Remy is a suave, womanising, cock sure kind of cop who, like the vast majority of his N.O.P.D. colleagues sees a little bit of grifting as par for the course and not necessarily an inidication of a cop being dirty. It is after all The Big Easy, a city that knows no black and white, only shades of gray. As the scrutiny from Osborne increases and the intensity of the killings grows Remy is forced to face up to his personal interperation of due process and question where his loyalties should lie.

As far as relatively straightforward thrillers go it’s decent enough, if a little predictable in its plot and accompanying twists. A decent cast manage to make the most of the material. Quaid is suitably flamboyant and sleazy as the Cajun Remy (channelling the X-Men’s Gambit by way of Witness era Harrison Ford), Barkin appropriately prim and proper as Osborne. There’s an impressive supporting cast too including Ned Beatty as Remy’s boss Kellom, John Goodman as a fellow homicide detective and (most pleasingly of all) New Orleans native Grace Zabriskie as the worldly wise matriarch of the McSwain clan. Between them they manage to add a little sparkle to a fairly average script, keeping you invested in the story.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the cinematography. I’m not sure how they’ve managed it but somehow McBride and DP Affonso Beato have succeeded in completely failing to capitalise on the uniqueness of New Orleans, choosing to shoot the film with the kind of flat, even, characterless lighting that you would expect from a TV movie or cop show rather than a feature film. I’m sure they had their reasons but the end result is a little bit, well, ordinary – not a word you would immediately jump to when trying to sum up a pre-Katrina New Orleans. They try to pull it back a bit with a couple of nods to Remy’s Cajun heritage but it’s too little too late, especially when compared to its more atmospheric contemporary, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. The result is a film that, barring a few accents and constant dialogue references to the Big Easy, could easily have transpired in any city in the world which is problematic as the notion that New Orleans is a permissive place where the usual rules don’t apply is essential for the story.

Regrettably this leaves the whole thing feeling a little bit pedestrian, despite the best efforts of the cast. The occasional flashes of inspiration (Remy’s ingenuity when it comes to getting himself out of trouble for example) are fun when they happen but they don’t happen nearly often enough. Ultimately you are left with the sensation of watching a feature length episode of a TV cop show and while they may have got away with this twenty five years ago, by today’s standards this would be disappointing even for TV. That said it is just entertaining enough to while away an hour and forty minutes without feeling cheated but then you won’t really be surprised either.

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