Moviedrome Redux: The Big Easy (1987)

Nick Clement returns with his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities.

“Screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr. … fashioned a script with a tone that goes from silly to romantic to serious to sensual to violent, and then all around again. I love films that pull off this neat balancing act with all sorts of ingredients – sort of like life.”

Dennis Quaid & Ellen Barkin in The Big Easy.

The Big Easy is tons of steamy, neo-noir fun, with terrific atmosphere and two dynamite performances from the sexy leads. Directed with panache by Jim McBride (David Holzman’s Diary, Breathless, Great Balls of Fire), the film works exceedingly well due to the palpable chemistry between Dennis Quaid (mile-wide smile POWER) and extra-hot Ellen Barkin, looking truly wonderful here, but who in retrospect was done no favours by the costume department, who dressed her in ugly, matronly garb, thus robbing her of her inherently sultriness. When she has her clothes on, of course. Her performance a few years later in Sea of Love was far more effective in conveying her animalistic sexual quality, but the differences between McBride and Harold Becker’s styles are obvious and large.

The pseudo-screw-ball plot in The Big Easy involves a shady, southern-fried detective (Quaid, doing an interesting Cajun accent) who’s being investigated by an assistant district attorney (Barkin) for internal corruption, which leads to a passionate affair, and various run-ins with criminals and corrupt cops. Screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr., who hand a hand in crafting Beverly Hills Cop and also wrote Shoot to Kill and Turner & Hooch and wrote and directed Toy Soldiers, fashioned a script with a tone that goes from silly to romantic to serious to sensual to violent, and then all around again. I love films that pull off this neat balancing act with all sorts of ingredients – sort of like life.

Well-received by critics (Roger Ebert was a notable champion, dubbing it “one of the richest American films of the year“) at the time of its release in 1986, the film was a modest box office success, with its odd sense of charm resting squarely on the young and thin shoulders of movie-star-in-the-making Quaid, and the vibrant, camera-ready sassiness of Barkin.

For some reason, The Big Easy has oddly never been released on Blu-ray in the UK or US (it seems like a Kino Lorber or Shout! title to me), and is only available on that format as a bare-bones German release on the Intergroove label and as a crappy, pan and scan, non-anamorphic DVD release. It’s also available through various streaming providers for rental or purchase, but again, not in any sort of HD presentation. Keep your eyes peeled!


❉ ‘The Big Easy’ (1987) Director: Jim McBride. Cast includes Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Ebbe Roe Smith, Lisa Jane Persky. Run time: 108 mins.

 Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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