(Not Quite A) Mardi Gras Film Review: The Big Easy (dir by Jim McBride)


One of the more surprising things about the 1987 film, The Big Easy, is that there aren’t any big Mardi Gras scenes.

Don’t get me wrong.  Several characters in the film mention Mardi Gras, usually in a semi-mocking way.  And there is a scene in a warehouse where Ellen Barkin and Ned Beatty walk past some fearsome looking floats which Beatty says are being stored there until Mardi Gras.  But that’s pretty much it.

Despite not having any huge Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is essentially a cinematic love letter to New Orleans.  (In fact, one could probably argue that the film is so in love with New Orleans that, by not including any big Mardi Gras scenes, the film is saying, “There’s more to this wonderful city than just beads, boobs, and people throwing up i the streets!”)  While the film does have a plot — technically, it’s both a romantic comedy and a crime drama — the plot is ultimately less important than the city where it takes place.  The Big Easy was shot on location in New Orleans and the camera loves every single street, building, and bridge to be found in the Crescent City.  The Big Easy loves the distinctive music and dialect of New Orleans.  Even more importantly, The Big Easy loves the attitude of New Orleans.  This is perhaps one of the most laid back and nonjudgmental crime films to have ever been made.

Dennis Quaid plays Remy McSwain, a Cajun police detective with a nonstop grin and a cheerfully corrupt nature.  Today, we tend to associate Dennis Quaid with playing grim-faced authority figures and serving as the commercial spokesman for Esurance so it’s interesting to see him here, playing a lovable, charismatic, and undeniably sexy rogue.  Remy may be corrupt but he doesn’t mean any harm.  For the most part, he just takes the occasional bribe and sometimes looks the other way when it comes to certain crimes.  He used at least some of the money to put his younger brother through college so really, how can you hold his lack of ethics against him?

Ellen Barkin plays Anne Osborne, a state district attorney who has been sent to New Orleans to investigate allegations of police corruption.  Anne is serious about doing her job and exposing corruption.  At the same time, she also finds herself falling for Remy, even when she has to prosecute him on charges of taking bribes.  It doesn’t take them long to become lovers.

Together, they have great sex and solve crimes!

Actually, in this case, they really do.  The film opens with the murder of a local mafia boss.  (“We call them wise guys,” Remy says, at one point.)  When more drug dealers start to turn up dead, Remy’s boss, Captain Kellom (Ned Beatty), suspects that a gang war has broken out.  (Two of the drug dealers are found with their hearts missing from their bodies, which leads to a lot of talk about how one of the city’s biggest drug kingpins is into voodoo.  It’s not a New Orleans films without a little voodoo.)  Remy, however, has reason to believe that the murderers could be cops!

As I said before, the film’s plot is less important than the city where it takes place and the people who live in that city.  Director Jim McBride and screenwriter Daniel Petrie, Jr. do a good enough job with the crime plot but it’s obvious that they’re most interested in taking Remy and Anne and surrounding them with a host of eccentric, identifiable New Orleans characters.  As a result, the film is full of memorable performances from character performers like Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, and Grace Zabriskie.  Even Jim Garrison, the former New Orleans district attorney whose attempt to frame an innocent man for the murder of John F. Kennedy inspired Oliver Stone’s JFK, makes an appearance as himself.

Even without any big Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is an entertainingly laid back tribute to New Orleans.

A Movie A Day #15: Special Bulletin (1983, directed by Ed Zwick)


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“We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special report…”

Led by veteran anchor John Woodley, the RBS news team is providing continuing coverage of a developing crisis in Charleston, South Carolina, where terrorists are holding several members of the coast guard, a local new reporter, and his cameraman hostage on a small tugboat.  These are not typical terrorists, though.  Two of them are nuclear scientists.  One of them is a social worker.  Another one is a nationally-renowned poet.  The final terrorist is a former banker robber who was just recently released from prison.  This unlikely group has only two demands: that the U.S. government hand over every single nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base and that RBS give them a live television feed so that they can explain their actions to the nation.  If either of those demands are not met, a nuclear bomb will be detonated and will destroy Charleston.

This made-for-TV movie was shot on video tape, to specifically make it look like an actual news broadcast.  Though much of the movie seems dated when compared to today’s slick, 24-hour media circus, Special Bulletin was convincing enough that, when it was originally broadcast in 1983, it caused a mini-panic among viewers who missed the opening disclaimer:

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Because the movie deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism instead of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war, it still feels relevant in a way that many of the atomic disaster films of the 1980s do not.  Beyond making an anti-nuclear statement, Special Bulletin is also a critical look at how the news media sensationalizes every crisis, with the RBS news team going from smug complacency to outright horror as the situation continues to deteriorate.  David Clennon and David Rasche are memorable as the two most outspoken of the terrorists and Ed Flanders is perfectly cast as a veteran news anchor struggling to maintain control in the middle of an uncontrollable situation.  Special Bulletin won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Special and can be currently be found on YouTube.

Keep an eye out for Michael Madsen, who shows up 57 minutes in and gets the movie’s best line: “That guy’s a total psycho ward.”

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