by Jack Sommersby
One of 1987's best films that the always-priggish Academy didn't bother rewarding with any Oscar nominations, sadly enough. Screw 'em.In the smashing entertainment The Big Easy, Dennis Quaid gives a spectacular, twenty-four-karat star performance as Remy McSwain, a New Orleans police lieutenant who's probably the liveliest cop character ever to grace the silver screen. Brimming with energy and high on life, Remy's great at his job and dearly loves the city he's hired to protect; a third-generation policeman, he has relatives on the force and non-relatives who know his relatives -- it's one big happy family. He's the youngest lietenant in the history of the department, and though he admits to having had an "in" that played a part in his promotion, no one doubts he's more than up to the task. It's a dynamite role, and Quaid is dynamite in it. Completely different in tone with his roles earlier in the year as the daring military pilot in the comedy Innerspace and the scheming lobbyist in the thriller Suspect, Quaid gives Remy a bouncy individual rhythm, as if a rollicking Cajun tune were forever coursing through his veins -- he lets us see that Remy uses this to keep himself above the horrors that he encounters every day on the streets; it's like a protective, insulated layer impervious at allowing the evil in the world to permeate and deaden his soul. He can be tough as nails and vigilant, to be sure, but for a veteran officer he's not cynical or disgruntled, and it'd be a cold day in hell before he allowed the scum of the criminal world to bring his spirits down. Even when called down to a murder scene at two in the morning, he's still perkily alert: getting out of his car, he flashes a wide smile that seems to be saying to his fellow officers, "Hey, don't let this get you down. It's almost Mardi Gras!" Quaid's been handed quite the juicy part, but he doesn't overdo it -- he goes as far with it as is humanly possible without ever stepping over that emotive line. The director, Jim McBride, got something like this out of Richard Gere in his so-so 1983 remake of Godard's Breathless, but Quaid's performance has more precision and control, and not just because he's the better actor but because Daniel Petrie, Jr., the screenwriter of the excellent Beverly Hills Cop (which also had a vivid three-dimensional police hero), gives him solider footing with more meat on the bone for a skilled actor to greedily chew into. For we gradually come to find out that Remy, as jovial and good-natured as he is, is no saint: he's corrupt and on the take, along with the rest of the department. It's okay, he's convinced himself and shrugs off, because it's small-time stuff that's been a longtime tradition in his precinct: mainly extortion, taking weekly payoffs from restaurants that don't meet the health codes, and strip clubs that offer things that color outside of the law. The money goes into a "widows and orphans fund," and is equally dispersed to the officers; it's like a regular bonus supplementing their meager paychecks for doing a "dirty" job, even though engaging in this kind of illegality does indeed make them "dirty."
"An Exciting, Red-Hot New Orleans Crime Tale"
The movie opens at a nighttime crime scene in the downtown area where a man's body has been found floating in a large fountain. Remy immediately identifies him as an associate of one of the local crime families; with the driver's license missing from the wallet and the body dumped in a public place, Remy surmises that he was taken out by a hitman, and that the family who hired him is sending a message to the family the man belonged to. He's ready to close out the case because he knows the murderer won't be found; but the next morning an assiatant district attorney by the name of Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin) shows up early at his office to inquire about it, which has the department worried because she's part of an official police-corruption strike force. Remy, a ladies-man with quite the reputation who thinks he can sweettalk her into admitting what her angle is, invites her out to dinner under the pretense of further discussing the case; she reluctantly accepts. Amusingly, when they arrive at the hot-spot restaurant with people lined up out the door, Remy parks his personal car next to a fire hydrant, pulls down the sun visor with a police ID on it, and escorts Anne inside ahead of everyone else, much to their chagrin -- naturally, Remy thinks nothing of it, but Anne, not hiding her displeasure, is embarrassed. More strong-willed than he expects, even after some dancing and slight flirtation on both their parts, Anne, even with Remy caressing her hand, refuses to divulge any pertinent information and makes it clear she isn't afraid of putting bad cops behind bars. Also amusingly, when the restaurant owner, who pays off the police to stay open and gives cops free meals, comes over to their table, Remy asks for the check, the owner is perplexed, he introduces Anne and her job title, and the owner, getting the point and into the act, produces the bill like it were a normal occurrence, which, of course, doesn't fool the acute Anne. On the drive home, seeing that she doesn't take this kind of thing lightly, and to needle her with his carefree attitude towards it, he smiles at her as he causally runs a red light -- it's childish, but Remy can't help himself. He sees nothing wrong with graft, that it's "little stuff," that it's just the way things are; but Anne knows that allowing for it inevitably leads to more serious courruption, perhaps beating a murder rap, which Remy, who views himself as righteous, balks at with disgust. Barkin, who touchingly played passive victims in Tender Mercies and Diner, makes Anne both intelligent and headstrong but not stiff -- she doesn't make the mistake of depriving Anne of personality just because she's a take-no-guff career woman. Anne's also sexually repressed, and she can't quite hide her attraction to Remy, which Remy, who's equally as attracted, easily picks up on.
With the ever-persistent Remy, who could charm the venom out of a rattlesnake, a romance does indeed develop, resulting in a truly hot bedroom scene (if you think Remy's hand-caressing is seductive, wait till you see how he lets his fingers expertly probe Anne's nether regions). But their pre-coital lovemaking is interrupted by a phone call, and Remy's off to another murder scene: this one at the home of a couple of brutally-shotgunned hoods with drugs and money found at the scene, including the previous dead man's driver's license; Anne shows up at the scene, too, because the rowdy neighbors outside are shouting that the police are the ones who did it. To Remy, it looks perfectly like a gang war; to Anne, it looks a little too perfect. From here, the story takes more than its share of surprising turns, all of them logical and most of them believable, with Remy soon finding himself on trial for accepting a bribe from a club owner -- it was a set-up by the task force without Anne's knowledge, and Remy's act has been captured on videotape. Which is a great thing, maybe not for Remy, but for the audience because it introduces a marvelous character: Lamar Parmentel, the best defense attorney in the city who's been the police department's worst enemy and is now working for Remy; and it gives the incomparable character actor Charles Ludlam the opportunity to really cut loose. Not only does Lamar have a brilliant legal mind, but he has a wicked sense of humor that wins over the jury; and Ludlam, cagily using his body and speaking with a Cajun drawl so thick crawfish juice seems to drip from his jowels, has a rip-roaring time playing him. It's part of The Big Easy's greatest attribute: its uncanny and masterful blending of humor and drama. The subject matter of police corruption is serious business, yes, but the movie doesn't get bogged down in joyless solemnity; it's willing to see the humor in situations that some movies of this type have turned a blind eye to in their quest to go didactic on us. Sidney Lumet's well-regarded 1973 Serpico is widely hailed as the model of this subgenre, but, aside from Al Pacino's excellent star performance, it was raggedly constructed and breezed over many of its implications; by contrast, The Big Easy keeps things colorful and with a greater eye for interesting detail. The movie feels lived-in and alive, and yet when the dramatics kick in the movie's able to plunge us headfirst into bracing emotional depths that floor us; McBride and Petrie, Jr. use humor not just to enhance character but to help sustain a tricky tone that manages to sneak up on us when the unpleasantness finally needs to be taken all its disturbing ugliness. After the trial (the case is reluctantly dropped by the prosecution due to some crafty evidence tampering), when Anne tells Remy to face it, that he's no longer one of the good guys, he's brought up short, devastated, so stunned he can't move. And later on, when he comes clean and explains to her his pathetic justification (and he now sees it as pathetic) for indulging in corruption, you can feel his wounded soul coming apart at the seams.
The Big Easy does so much alarmingly right that you wonder why more motion pictures can't come close to doing the same. As a comedy, it's witty; as a drama, it penetrates; as a romance, it tantalizes; as a character study, it's perceptive and multi-layered; and as a thriller, it sizzles. All of these various elements have been dexterously blended to create an organic overall whole that's all of a piece; there's nothing extraneous or out of place -- that is, except the unaccountably dumb finale: a contrived big action sequence at a boat dock involving gunfire and explosions that seems phoned in from the nearest Bourbon St. tavern. (Maybe the studio insisted on it, I don't know, but McBride's heart certainly doesn't seem to be in it. It's the only inept section of the entire movie, even though there's a humorous visual payoff of a floating hairpiece that almost washes away its sour taste.) Because of McBride's love of actors, the supporting cast gets to shine and make their own indelible impressions. As Remy's superior officer who's about to marry Remy's widowed mother, Ned Beatty (whose Cajun accent isn't quite up to par with Quaid's and Ludlam's) doesn't play the typical Movieland captain of the shrill-shouting variety -- he's understated and warm, but with a tad of vagueness that may or may not be suggestive of a darker side. As a couple of inept junior cops, John Goodman and Ebbe Roe Smith make for very humble stooges; and as a female officer who loves ribbing Remy, an alert Lisa Jane Persky crackles with winning perkiness. In just one scene each, Marc Lawrence and Solomon Burke are pure acting magic as the heads of the most powerful of the crime families. (Plus, they've got great names: Vinnie "The Cannon" DiMotti and Daddy Mention, the former a cranky old bastard and the latter a father of twenty-seven children and grandfather of seventeen.) Even in a smaller role, Dave Petitjean, as bubbly restauranter Uncle Sos, shines like a spotlight. The music score by Brad Fiedel has verve, Jeannine Claudia Oppelwall's production design boasts tactility, and the location shooting throughout New Orleans is an eyeful without undue travelogue glossiness. And what dialogue! After an incriminating videotape has been "accidentally" erased while in the police property room, Lamar remarks to Remy, "New Orleans is indeed a marvelous environment for coincidence." When Anne asks Remy if all the street violence gets to him, he says, "Bullets bounce off me, cher," to which she asks, "You're never afraid?" and Remy, pausing just a second, unexpectedly replies, "All the time." (Not surprisingly, Anne, seeing this brief vulnerability, is completely won over and kisses him passionately.) Like the very best gumbo and etouffee, The Big Easy is pure, undiluted pleasure to the senses -- it looks great on the surface and is even greater underneath, and all the while making everything look so damn effortless with the kind of unerring instinct that should make inferior moviemakers absolutely weep with envy.Unfortunately, it's only available on a non-anamorphic DVD with absolutely no special features. Ugh.
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originally posted: 09/16/11 10:57:07