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.