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Movie Review: The Big Easy Turns 30

Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin star in 1987 crime thriller.

By Sean PatrickPublished 7 years ago 3 min read

This week in 1987 The Big Easy starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin and directed by Jim McBride was released nationwide following a brief run on the awards circuit in late 1986. The film tells the story of a corrupt New Orleans Police Detective named Remy McSwain, played by Quaid, who’s about to learn that corruption doesn’t really pay. Ellen Barkin is a District Attorney tasked with investigating Remy’s corruption and that of his fellow New Orleans brothers in Blue.

Director Jim McBride is best remembered for his 1982 remake of Jean Luc Godard’s iconic Breathless, with Richard Gere in the Jean Paul Belmondo role, Valerie Kaprisky in the Jean Seberg role and Las Vegas standing in for Paris. McBride, it seems, had a longstanding fascination with the French New Wave as not only did he remake Breathless, but in The Big Easy he tells the kind of American crime story that directors like Godard, Truffaut and Melville cite as their earliest influences.

Does that make The Big Easy good? Eh, it gives it a perspective I guess. The problem with The Big Easy isn’t necessarily the movie, it’s time. Time has not been kind to movies in the crime genre. In the last 30 years’ dozens of films have trod upon similar ground, enough to make The Big Easy feel like just another copycat. That McBride may have been attempting an homage to his French New Wave influences is nice, but the only thing French about The Big Easy is its locational relation to the French Quarter.

Mr. McBride directs The Big Easy not like the dispassionate French crime stories but rather exactly like the old 40’s Hollywood pictures that the New Wave ate up. When the New Wave remade those pictures their French-ness made the stories feel fresh and innovative. In 1987 when McBride crafted his crime movie homage his only innovation was R-Rated sex and violence. Nothing about The Big Easy feels fresh anymore as a zillion other pictures have come along and were better at portraying corruption, sex, and violence.

The direction is also unspectacular. Don’t misunderstand, Mr. McBride is a fine director but he is, what I have come to call, a director as Carpenter rather than a director as Artist or author (the French call them Auteurs). McBride is terrific at assembling pieces; his movie is sturdy and inviting. Sadly, it lacks panache, it lacks style, it lacks cool. From Dennis Quaid’s 50s haircut and bizarre Louisiana accent to Ellen Barkin attempting to hide her innate sensuality to fit her stuffy, stock female protagonist, everything in The Big Easy is just kind of OK, or in the case of Barkin, outright wrong.

There is nothing remotely stock about Ellen Barkin. As she has proven time and again since The Big Easy, she’s a brassy lady and not some knock kneed little girl moving at the whim of the men around her. When she’s forced to hide behind Quaid’s tough guy cop during the climactic shootout I wanted her to grab the gun out of his hand and show him how the scene should be done. Instead, she’s forced to act out one of Roger Ebert’s classic clichés of the girl who fires the gun, immediately drops it a moment later. Ironically, Ebert loved The Big Easy, called it one of the best of 1987.

You can hear more talk of The Big Easy on the next Everyone’s a Critic Movie Review Podcast hosted myself, Bob Zerull and Josh Adams. New episodes every Monday on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. We will be talking about The Big Easy, Dirty Dancing, and the new movies The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Logan Lucky this week along with all of the latest Hollywood headlines.


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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