From time to time, I'll haul down a DVD from my collection, throw it into the player and see if it still holds up. In most cases, it's been years since I've seen it, tastes change and there is always the possibility that I'll go, 'what the heck was I thinking?' The last time I did that was in February 2010, a month after we launched Critics at Large, when I looked at Toby Hooper's delightfully bananacakes film Lifeforce (1985). This past weekend I pulled down another 1980s picture, one that I actually liked, not because it was catawampus, but because, except for the predictable cop plot, it was a good, adult character piece: Jim McBride's The Big Easy (1987).
Being set (and made) in pre-Katrina New Orleans gives this film an unexpected current-day resonance. The city, as portrayed in the film, is gone, or at least seriously damaged. McBride must have known his script was basically codswallop since he uses it as one gigantic McGuffin to hang his character study on. A series of seemingly gang-related killings start to occur in New Orleans, except none of the gangs seem to know anything about it. Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid), chief homicide detective of the New Orleans Police Department, has to unravel the case. McSwain, and seemingly every other cop in the department, is corrupt. He (and they) think nothing of taking a kickback here, getting a free meal there. It's, as they repeatedly say, “the Big Easy, cher.” Meaning, it's the way things are done there. As he tries to solve the case, the Louisiana's District Attorney's Office sends Assistant D.A. Ann Osborne (Ellen Barkin) into the city to, at first, investigate the corruption – and especially McSwain – and then later, on her own, decides to help McSwain solve the crime. Let's leave the silly plot aside. Written by Daniel Petrie Jr., it's like a funky redo of Magnum Force.
|Dennis Quaid & Ellen Barkin enjoying New Orleans|
Ellen Barkin, as the outsider (and our representative) is perfectly cast. Today, an actress of Barkin's quirky beauty would probably not have a career in Hollywood if she was just starting out. But lucky for us in the 1980s, she made a string of pictures (Diner, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) where her skills as an actress and her ability to project her sexuality without being vulgar was embraced. The bedroom scenes with Quaid have a real-good-roll-in-the-hay spark. My favourite line has always been, “Don't do that,” she says. “Don't do what, cher?” says Quaid. “This. Or this?” Out of camera range, he is clearly touching Osborne's nether regions in first one way and then another. She squirms with delight and moans, “that.” It's delicious and so very adult.
|Director Jim McBride|