Nothing like a corruption charge to damper the romance between a cop and an assistant district attorney. The Big Easy is a lighthearted look at where the line is between right and wrong in more ways than one. Dennis Quaid is Lt. Remy McSwain, a native of New Orleans, who reckons that he is an honest cop, despite his willingness go along with the kickbacks from his precinct’s “Widows and Orphans Fund.” To put it plainly, he teeters on the line between being corrupt and being good police. On the one hand, he is a capable investigator and believes in justice. However, on the other, he is aware of and takes advantage of the extra incentives, such as free meals and the occasional envelope of money for extra protection. To him, it’s just the cost of doing business and how things work. That view is challenged when he meets straitlaced and by-the-book assistant district attorney Anne Osborne, played by Ellen Barkin. Each represents everything that the other hates about the law. To him, she is uptight and has no idea how the law really works; and to her, he is nonchalant and knows nothing about the slippery slope of corruption. By all accounts, they should hate each other, and yet they are drawn to one another like magnets.
While the film embraces your basic enemies-to-lovers trope, I will say that for me it felt like a fresh take, which is saying something given that the film was made back in 1986. The aspect I found interesting was the direction it took by having Remy getting ensnared in a corruption investigation just as things were starting to heat up between the two. This was a great means of throwing a monkey wrench in their blossoming relationship and creating tension between the two characters. The tension was heightened by having Barkin’s character serve as the prosecutor, thereby elevating the emotion of their exchanges, particularly when she cross-examined him and she became openly hostile as her feelings got the better of her. I did have some concerns regarding how the two would find themselves back to one another, especially with the prospect of prison for the McSwain. Naturally, there was only one way things could go with McSwain beating the rap. But that did leave the questions of how the two would find common ground again.
The answer came in the crime that brought the two together, as McSwain realizes that there was more to the murder of a notorious mobster than he initially believed. Suspecting it to be nothing more than rival hit conducted by another mafia family, he was keen to close the book. That is until more and more bodies start to drop, and even he is unable to deny the connection to people close to him. This made for a significant character arc for McSwain, as he begins to fully realize the slippery slope that he is part of. Up until that point, he’d believed that it was OK to enjoy the occasional kickback for doing a dirty and dangerous job. He’d had a code, a line he wouldn’t cross. He was part of a family, and he had their backs just like he was sure they had his. However, the closer he gets to the solving the crime and the closer he grows to Anne Osborne, the more he begins to view things differently. For me, this was the most enjoyable portion of the film, watching this character who was so self-assured begin to doubt things, especially when someone close to him is hurt as a result of an attempt on him. Afterwards, he is forced to confront his own misdeeds and what he has allowed to occur under his very nose. During this realization, it normally would have been easy to turn against the character and see him as the villain. However, thanks to Quaid’s portrayal of the character, which was charming and likable, coupled with his emotional breakdown when he finds himself at a crossroads, McSwain remains the protagonist in my humble opinion. Yes, he crossed some ethical boundaries, but as I previously mentioned, he had a code, which included the strength of his conviction that no one was to be hurt as a result of his or anyone else’s actions. Additionally, as displayed throughout the film, he was a good cop with good instincts. On multiple occasions while investigating the crime, he was able to put together connections that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Essentially, his biggest crime was that he had a blind spot when it came to those closest to him, and he assumed that they operated similarly to how he himself operated. When confronted with the revelation that they didn’t, he didn’t shy away from responsibility, and he did what was necessary to set things right. That is why he remained the protagonist in my eyes.
Then there is Ellen Barkin’s Anne Osborne, who acted as the film’s moral center. She initially comes off prudish and as a bit of an idealist. It is initially difficult to see things from her side, as her views are rigid and do not allow for any measure of flexibility; black and white with no shades of gray. That aside, even she isn’t immune to the charms of Remy McSwain. For her part, it was about the seduction, setting the stage for forbidden temptation. While she does fall for Remy, when confronted with the choice between him and her convictions, she does not hesitate to exact justice, and perhaps a little revenge, on McSwain while attempt to prosecute him. Her attempt is unsuccessful, but not due to her. Even afterwards, she stands by her ethics, which ultimately is what causes McSwain to question his own worldview. She is the ideal counterbalance for him.
I can see why the film was made into an albeit-doomed television series based on its premise. As a romance, it had passion as the two characters struggle to fight their undeniable attraction and chemistry. If that was all there was to the story, it would have been one-dimensional, but fortunately it also a mystery thriller, which I found myself becoming engrossed in as the two worked to determine who was responsible for the killings and their ultimate motive. As a mystery it did not disappoint as things came to a head that saw multiple deaths and near-death scenarios. It is a movie that is multi-faceted that I can see myself watching again in the near future.