The credits list Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin as the principal players, but the real stars of "The Big Easy" are the city of New Orleans and its Cajun music. The movie is one of a dying breed, the romantic thriller. It makes a welcome appearance on DVD.
Quaid plays NOPD homicide lieutenant Remy McSwain. He is breezy, cocky, happy-go-lucky, and supposedly honest. Get used to the Louisiana-French Cajun accent, though; it's there for the duration. We first meet him as he's investigating a murder, an apparent mob hit. Enter Ms. Barkin as Anne Osborne, an assistant district attorney checking into alleged police corruption. She is serious, conservative, and not a little uptight. The two don't exactly hit it off together when they first meet, yet the inevitable is in sight.
From here the movie proceeds in two directions. There is the mystery to be solved, and Quaid and Barkin manage finally to team up and deal with it. And there is the romance between Quaid and Barkin that is at the heart of the picture, a stormy, off-again, on-again kind of relationship. Be assured that by movie's end all the loose threads of both stories are tied neatly together; but it is probably the film's human drama that will remain in one's mind longest, the love interest between Quaid and Barkin and the gradual changes we observe in both their outlooks on life.
Still and all, it's the ambiance of the city itself that plays an important role in the film. "The Big Easy" is an affectionate nickname for New Orleans as well as an apt description for McSwain's character and lifestyle. He is Louisiana born and bred; his father was a cop and his father's father before him. McSwain's family is prodigious and widespread throughout the city. Meeting the relatives and simultaneously enjoying the location shots are among the film's big pleasures.
That and the Cajun music. It's everywhere, from the opening titles to the closing credits. Even Quaid himself sings at one point with a Cajun band at a family gathering. The music's unique country style can be joyous, nostalgic, or sentimental as the occasion demands, and it helps set the tone for various scenes in the picture. It's hardly the kind of lush, passionate music one expects for a romance--it's not "Laura's Theme" from "Doctor Zhivago," for instance, or the main theme from Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet." It just establishes the right atmosphere for the occasion.
Surrounding Quaid and Barkin are Ned Beatty as a police captain and would-be family member; John Goodman as a fellow police detective; and Charles Ludlam as a wonderfully colorful defense lawyer. Add director Jim McBride's fairly tactful pacing to the movie's mystery, romance, characters, atmosphere and music, and you get an enjoyable few hours of movie watching. The story takes some getting used to, admittedly, running rather leisurely at first, but it moves steadily onward and grows on you as it goes along.
The 1.85:1 ratio widescreen picture quality is good but not exceptional. Most everything is as it should be, with DVD's expected clarity setting off well the sights of the city, and any minor imperfections probably attributable to the age of the film stock.
The sound, though, is disappointing, especially considering so much great background music is at stake. The sonics are monaural, fairly restricted in frequency and dynamic range, and sometimes distorted and hollow. It serves to remind us how relatively recently movie houses converted even to two-channel stereo, let alone multichannel surround sound. In 1987, many theaters were still able only to serve up mono sound, so that's the way many mainstream film soundtracks, like this one, were made.
In addition to the movie, Trimark offer background information on the cast and crew, an assortment of language choices, and the usual scene access and theatrical trailer.
I suspect that some viewers will find "The Big Easy" a bit too broadly drawn, the characters too facile, the plot too slick, the action too awkward, and the tempo too relaxed. Such criticisms can be justified, of course, if one is determined not to be touched by the film's charms. Take it big and easy, and you'll enjoy it.