If you have ever wonder why Burt Reynolds, despite receiving an Oscar nomination for Boogie Nights and being a favorite of so many of the up-and-coming directors of the 90s and early 2000s, never made a real comeback, you only have to watch Big City Blues.
In Big City Blues, Burt plays a hitman who loves to watch and talk about old movies. Over the course of one very long night, Burt and his partner (played by William Forsythe) drive through the city. In between doing violent jobs for their boss, they talk. Burt talks about movies. Forsythe talks about how he doesn’t understand Burt’s love of the movies. They talk nonstop and if this is making you think of Pulp Fiction, it’s probably intentional. Today, I think people forget just how many Pulp Fiction rip-offs were released throughout the 90s, all featuring talkative criminals who were obsessed with pop culture. Burt Reynolds and William Forsythe have got the equivalent of the roles played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Unfortunately, Reynolds and Forsythe don’t have the same chemistry as Travolta and Jackson. You believed that Travolta and Jackson had been working together for years and, when they talked, that they were having an actual conversation. Despite both of them being credited as executive producers on the film, Reynolds and Forsythe come across as being two talented actors who are phoning it in for a paycheck.
When the film isn’t focused on Reynolds and Forsythe, it follows two trans women (played by Giancarlo Esposito and Ayre Gross) as they walk around the city and debate whether or not Esposito should get sex reassignment surgery. When it’s not following Esposito and Gross, it’s focusing on a sex worker (Georgina Cates) who wants to be a movie star and who keeps seeing evidence that she has a doppelganger who is living the respectable life that she craves. Cates searches for her doppelganger while also servicing her clients, who are all typical middle-aged pervs. (One gets off from listening to Cates sing Ol’ McDonald Had a Farm.) Eventually, the paths of all the characters cross and Reynolds talks about how life is just celestial roulette.
Big City Blues doesn’t add up to much. Like many 90s indie films, the characters are all talkative to the point of feeling like parodies. (When the movie isn’t trying to rip-off Quentin Tarantino, it feels like a half-baked imitation of Richard Linklater.) Even the likable performances of Cates, Esposito, and Gross can’t overcome how overwritten and derivative the script feels. Beyond the script, the film just looks bad. All of the scenes take place at night and the lighting is often so dark that it’s impossible to see what’s actually happening from scene to scene. It feels amateurish.
So why was Burt Reynolds in this? This was the first film that Reynolds made after the filming of Boogie Nights. Probably thinking that Boogie Nights would flop, Reynolds signed up to appear in this Pulp Fiction knock-off, which is something that many former stars did in the 90s. Instead of flopping, Boogie Nights turned out to be the film that reminded everyone that Reynolds could be a very good actor with the right material. Unfortunately, Reynolds himself didn’t think much of the film and, perhaps even worse as far as Hollywood was concerned, he was open about not thinking much of the film. As a result, even with that Oscar nomination, Reynolds didn’t get the type of career resurrection that John Travolta got from Pulp Fiction and Robert Forster and Pam Grier got from Jackie Brown. That’s too bad. Burt Reynolds deserved better.