Movie review: ‘The Big Easy’

Pairings of actors can run the gamut from buddy film friends to family to lovers. However, although the pairings don’t always work out as well as Martin and Lewis, an excellent example of combustible on-screen chemistry is in “The Big Easy” with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. The two either crackle with barely restrained electricity or just sizzle when they’re together in this tale of murder down New Orleans way. “The Big Easy” is kind of an “L.A. Confidential” light (click here for my review of the better film). “The Big Easy” is good in the way of a story but it never measures up to the Oscar-winning “L.A. Confidential” and never reaches its own potential. As it’s going on 30 years old with the original writing of this review, “The Big Easy” doesn’t come quickly to mind if you’ve seen it … but check it out again, it’s worth it.

‘The Big Easy’
(1987; 102 minutes; rated R; directed by Jim McBride and starring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin and Ned Beatty)

LOVE CREATES PROBLEMS, ESPECIALLY WITH THE POLICE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with more opinion, additional trivia and the updating of links on May 4, 2018.)

I give “The Big Easy” from 1987 good marks across the board, but it gets almost great marks for two films that should have been made: One is a dark police drama with much more serious lead actors and the second is a more romantic movie for Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, who turn up the heat all too effectively in “The Big Easy.”

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Together, Quaid and Barkin are simply electric in the romance department but the frame of the police drama in “The Big Easy” detracts from both the overall film and them because of their relationship. They both are a bit strained in the police parts to nearly overacting their respective roles as a lieutenant and a prosecutor, but the energy just crackles when they’re together on a more personal level.

Quaid would show us how it could be better all the way around with a story and a romance the same year in “Innerspace” (click here for my review) with wife-to-be Meg Ryan – they were married from 1991-2001. “Innerspace” is actually a more complete film than “The Big Easy” – albeit a comedy and not dark drama highlighted by romance – but in the end not the writing equal of “The Big Easy.”

In “The Big Easy,” Barkin plays “Anne Osborne.” She’s is the newcomer – a prosecutor looking into police corruption in New Orleans. Quaid is “Lt. Remy McSwain” and he is good-looking, popular and believes he’s on top of the homicide action in his city. He’s also a little corrupt (being part of the “widows and orphans” fund collected by police from local merchants) and his new relationship – forged with Barkin through a series of killings in what’s initially billed as a gang war – causes him both moral and ethical problems.

The storyline is delightfully convoluted and intricate and spins its way out eloquently through the film until a final deadly showdown with all the principal parties that manages to destroy at least a part of all their lives (and spells doom for several key characters). You actually have to watch this one to keep up – there’s eye candy here but don’t let it distract you.

Director Jim McBride, who would work two years later with Quaid in “Great Balls of Fire!,” does a competent job here and from a bit of a boisterous fun near the beginning at a party for Quaid it turns very dark with rain and a nighttime ending highlighting the darkness into which the characters were actually living.

Still, the police corruption part of the story could have been better told stand-alone without the romantic entanglement. Quaid and Barkin’s romance detracts from both the drama and the potential of a better romantic film for the stars. While he with his good looks and eager sexuality and her quirky beauty and smoldering desire wouldn’t work in a comedy like “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review), they would have done well in an emotional drama such as “Nine ½ Weeks” from the year before.

Let’s take a look at the expansive, solid cast and what they did:

  • Two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Quaid does an OK job with his Cajun accent (I’m not a linguist and couldn’t tell you if it was accurate or not) and calling people by the familiar diminutive, “cher,” and does a good job as the wide-open, passionate cop who ultimately has to follow his conscience even as it destroys part of his family. He has been in a wide variety of films from “Dreamscape” to “DragonHeart” to his critically acclaimed role in “The Right Stuff” (click here for my review). He got his nominations for “Far From Heaven” and TV’s “The Special Relationship.” He was in the reboot of “Footloose” as well as the Oliver Stone football stinker “Any Given Sunday” (click here for my criticism of it) and I liked his small part in the remake of “The Parent Trap” with Lindsay Lohan.
  • Also a two-time Globe nominee (not for this one), Barkin, who has made a career of eclectic roles, tries hard to be the go-getting prosecutor here, but it takes half of the film for her to find her feet – once she’s close to a criminal who’s killed by police in the middle of the film she seems to find her way in the role. As to the ultra-steamy bedroom scenes or the funny wrapped-in-nothing-but-a-sheet kitchen scene, Barkin was the perfect choice here. She has also been in the cult classic “Diner” as well as in both “Ocean’s Thirteen” (click here for my review) and “Sea of Love” with Al Pacino and even TV with a guest appearance on the execrable but popular “Modern Family” series. Her nominations came for “Switch” and TV’s “Before Women had Wings.”
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Ned Beatty turns in his usual outstanding supporting role here as “Jack Kellom” and is Quaid’s boss in the police department and is getting ready to marry the younger man’s widowed mother. It’s all in the family … except Beatty turns out to be a bad apple. He does a good job switching from straight-laced supervisor to his real colors as the orchestrator of murder. Beatty is familiar from his work in “Deliverance” as well as a very active resume of 164 credits over five decades including “The Toy” with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor (click here for my review); as “Dean Martin” in “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield (click here for my review); and as a Russian spymaster in “The Fourth Protocol” in a very smallish role (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Network.”
  • In a smaller role but done just as well as Beatty does his is Golden Globe winner and four-time nominee (not for this one) John Goodman as “Det. Andre DeSoto.” Goodman first appears to be a good-ol’-boy cop who’s having some fun, but in fact is a killer in the enforcement arm of Beatty’s convoluted scheme. Goodman is terrific in the role and has a great scene where he and his partner are asked to take out all their weapons and in a few seconds nearly fill the top of a table with guns, knives, brass knuckles, saps and handcuffs. Goodman was delightful in “The Big Lebowski” and has been in “Argo” and “The Babe.” He won for being on the TV dreck called “Roseanne” (and three other nominations – and I’m not giving you the link because of my intense dislike of it) as well as being nominated for “Barton Fink.”
  • Charles Ludlam is pitch perfect as oily defense lawyer “Lamar Parmentel.” He represents Quaid when the cop is accused of taking a bribe and is about to link up a criminal with Barkin’s investigation when the man is killed. His little dance through a band practicing a performance on the street is delightful. He had only 10 credits to his resume including “Forever, Lulu” and he died of AIDS at the age of 44 within three months of the U.S. release of “The Big Easy.”
  • One actor who I would have liked to have seen a lot more of is Lisa Jane Persky as “Det. McCabe.” She has one of the more interesting supporting characters as the eager up-and-coming detective on the homicide squad and isn’t squeamish and holds her own with the boys. Persky is nearly perfect in her moments on screen and has also been in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Great Santini.” Her resume of 69 acting credits ends in 2006 after having begun in 1978.
  • The affable and watchable Gailiard Sartain plays “Chef Paul,” which is an obvious reference to internationally famous Chef Paul Prudhomme who popularized Cajun cooking out of New Orleans (especially blackened redfish) in the 1980s. Sartain’s smooth as silk accent in the small role is just perfect as the restaurant operator offering a free meal to Quaid while he’s in the company of the woman investigating police corruption. Sartain was also in “The Hollywood Knights” (click here for my review) and was “The Big Bopper” in “The Buddy Holly Story.” In an odd coincidence, his career stopped with 69 acting credits the year before Persky’s after beginning in 1972.

So, there you have it. A film that would have been better with just the Quaid-Barkin romance or as police noir, but one that’s pretty darn good just as it stands.

The Big Easy” was the 62nd ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1987 with $17.6 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film of the year was “Three Men and a Baby” with $167.7 million. “The Big Easy” was first released in November 1986 at the “Rio Film Festival” in Brazil and didn’t come to the U.S. until four months later. Here are the other films from 1987 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The most famous (in real life) supporting actor is James Garrison – yes, THE Jim Garrison of the JFK assassination case fame. He plays “Judge Jim Garrison” and is the person played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s flawed but acclaimed “JFK.”
  • Other actors reportedly considered for Quaid’s character include Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Harrison Fort and Richard Gere. Richard Gere? Thank goodness that did happen.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “According to the Wikipedia website, ‘the producers used well-known locations [in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA] such as Tipitina’s, Antoine’s, Blaine Kern’s warehouse full of Mardi Gras parade floats, and a French Quarter strip joint, to flesh out the mood of the film.’”
  • The state of Louisiana’s Film Commission aided in the production of the film and shortly after its premiere, some members of the commission were charged in a kickback scandal.
  • David Byrne of the “Talking Heads” was the film’s music consultant but didn’t receive on-screen credit.
  • The film was the basis for a TV series that ran for two seasons in the 1990s.
  • The film was originally planned to be set in Chicago and early drafts of the script were titled “Windy City.” The change was suggested by a production executive who had graduated from Tulane University.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
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