The locals refer to New Orleans as the "Big Easy," which is a nice, possibly ironic phrase to apply to a city that -- seafood and wrought iron aside -- appears to be as bustling, gritty and crime ridden as any other postmodern metropolis. It also makes a sharp and catchy movie title, and, finally, a misleading one.
For The Big Easy is actually tense with concern over what might be called the little easys, those minor, tolerated corruptions that have become a seemingly ineradicable part of our professional and public life. Especially the latter, and especially among police officers. What is interesting here is that the filmmakers start out to rethink this matter. They may end up in a conventionally moral place, but they work their way toward it circuitously, riskily, giving a variety of all too human bedevilments their due.
One imagines, for example, and for quite a long time, that Lieut. Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid, currently our best breezy actor) is going to conduct his business as a homicide detective in the usual movie manner: he is going to be brave, bright, brash, bending a bureaucratic rule here, a departmental regulation there, in order to get on with a job he is obviously good at -- bringing criminals to justice. His loyalty to the force and his family -- which are virtually coterminous, since most of his relatives are police -- more than compensates for his occasional lapses from perfect rectitude. So he parks in no-parking spots and takes free meals from restaurants. It is really annoying of Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin), a young assistant district attorney, to try to keep on turning these misdemeanors into high crimes. Oh well, one says, she'll learn.
Wrong. We will. And he will. It comes as a genuine shock when we discover that Remy is a member in good standing of the "Widows and Orphans Fund," accepting a thick wad of cash weekly as his share of the profits from police shakedown activities. This conduct is not merely unbecoming an officer, it is hard-core crookedness entirely unknown among movie hero cops. And Remy himself gets a shock when he learns that the crime wave he has been investigating has rolled forth from his own squad room and that it is his mentor and would-be stepfather (Ned Beatty, in a cheerily duplicitous performance) who is riding its crest.
The point is that there is no such thing as petty or discrete corruption, not for an individual, not for a community. One thing must inevitably lead to another, and finally to the creation of a miasmic climate in which no one can keep his moral bearings. For the filmmakers, it is no easy matter to make this point while retaining a subtle compassion for characters who miss it or come to it too late. Nor is it simple strategy in a movie that manages to be atmospherically rich while also satisfying the slash-crash imperatives of the police-action genre.
It is too bad that Writer Petrie and Director McBride are fools for love. They spend too much time not quite convincing us that wayward cop and willful lawyer can convert curiosity about each other into true and permanent love. This prevents a good movie from becoming a terrific one. Still, of its type, The Big Easy is good enough, and better than most.