Release Date(s)1986 (April 4, 2023)
Studio(s)Kings Road Entertainment/Columbia Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: C+
The Big Easy was one of the big sleepers of 1986, even if it wasn’t necessarily a sleeper hit. It still garnered positive reviews, and it received significant attention at various film festivals around the world—notably, it ended up being the first film sold at Sundance. The middling box office isn’t particularly surprising, because it was certainly antithetical to the nature of populist entertainment during the Eighties. While it’s a tale of the police, conspiracies, and corruption, The Big Easy is no Lethal Weapon, yet it’s not exactly Prince of the City, either. That’s because it occupies an uneasy middle ground between the two: it’s neither an entertaining police action-adventure, nor a gritty exposé. It’s not even really a cop movie at all. Instead, it’s essentially a screwball romantic comedy, minus some of the laughs, and with a generous dose of New Orleans texture added to the mix instead.
Much of that is thanks to director Jim McBride, who had moved from the world of being an indie darling during the Seventies with films like David Holzman’s Diary to somewhat more commercial fare during the Eighties, starting with his remake of Breathless in 1983. Unlike his previous films, The Big Easy wasn’t his own project, but when he came aboard, he took over decisively. The script by Daniel Petrie, Jr. was originally set in Chicago, but McBride is the one who made the fateful decision to move the story to New Orleans instead, creating an entirely different feel. He also insisted on casting Ellen Barkin opposite Dennis Quaid, which resulted in a romantic pairing for the ages.
The story of The Big Easy pits the genially corrupt Detective Remy McSwain (Quaid) against a straightlaced District Attorney (Barkin) during the investigation of the murder of a local mobster. Despite the fact that he’s on the take and represents the kind of corruption that she’s trying to uproot, the two immediately become attracted to each other, and sparks (as well as a few bullets) will fly before the investigation is over. The Big Easy’s impressive supporting cast includes Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, and Grace Zabriskie, plus memorable cameos by singer Solomon Burke and former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.
The actual narrative details in The Big Easy aren’t particularly important, because it’s all about the textural detail instead, as well as the chemistry between Quaid and Barkin. Nothing else matters. While McBride didn’t necessarily provide a comprehensive tour of New Orleans locales, he still nailed the flavor, greatly aided by a jazzy score from Brad Fiedel, plus plenty of catchy zydeco needle drops (Quaid himself even wrote and performed a song for the soundtrack). It’s a spicy brew, but none of that texture provides half as much spice as Quaid and Barkin did. They supplied the glue that holds The Big Easy together, and none of it would have worked without them. The script provided the classic screwball comedy setup of forcing two wildly different personalities together, but it took Quaid and Barkin to make those personalities mesh, in more ways than one. The Big Easy isn’t necessarily a great cop movie, but it’s a great romantic adventure, and an affirmation of the ways in which opposites can attract.
Cinematographer Affonso Beato shot The Big Easy on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras and lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Kino describes this version as a “2021 HD master by Lionsgate,” but it’s definitely not a 2021 scan. It’s an older master, likely derived from an interpositive, that’s had some recent tinkering done to it to try to refresh the image. A bit too much tinkering, as it turns out, because everything now has a harshly digital and somewhat noisy look to it. It’s fairly clean, with just the occasional speckle or other small blemish, but it’s also a bit soft, and the contrast looks artificially boosted at times. That’s unfortunate, because despite the fact that the scan is a dated one, it might have looked better if Lionsgate had put less effort into “correcting” things. It’s still an upgrade over DVD, but The Big Easy could definitely use a fresh scan, as well as a more of a restrained hand with the digital tools.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. While this may be a lossless track, something was already lost long before it was encoded to disc. Everything sounds thin and compressed, with no low end whatsoever. There’s excessive sibilance in the dialogue, and Brad Fiedel’s otherwise satisfying score sounds harsh and unpleasant here. There’s no indication of what source was used, but even the optical tracks off of a print could have sounded superior to this. Whatever the source, it’s a shame that better elements weren’t available.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Big Easy comes with a slipcover that duplicates the theatrical poster artwork on the insert, as well as the following extras:
- Audio Commentary by Jim McBride, moderated by Douglas Hosdale
- The Big Easy Trailer (SD – 2:04)
- D.O.A. Trailer (SD – 1:49)
- The Hunter Trailer (HD – 3:15)
- I, The Jury Trailer (SD – 1:54)
- F/X Trailer (SD – 2:36)
- No Mercy Trailer (SD – 2:13)
The commentary features McBride along with Kino’s Douglas Hosdale serving as a moderator. The eighty-year-old McBride is sounding a bit frail at this point, so it was a good idea to pair him with Hosdale, who keeps things moving by asking questions of McBride whenever things seem to falter. (McBride admits that he has a hard time remembering names these days.) They cover how McBride became involved with the project, the changes that he made to the script, and the resulting conflict with the producers over those changes. He also had to fight them to cast Ellen Barkin. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that The Big Easy is a screwball comedy in form only, McBride says that he used His Girl Friday as a touchstone for the way that he wanted the rapid-fire and overlapping dialogue to work in his film. He’s also open about the some of the minor inaccuracies in the dialogue, like the way that Dennis Quaid consistently mispronounces the word “cher.” It’s not the most energetic of commentaries, but it’s nice to have McBride’s thoughts preserved while he’s still with us.
While it’s a shame that there wasn’t a better master available—Kino had to play the hand that they were dealt here—it’s still a treat to finally get The Big Easy on Blu-ray. It’s hardly a forgotten film, but it’s definitely a neglected one these days, so hopefully this will give new audiences a chance to experience it. It’s still a recommended disc, albeit with a few reservations.
- Stephen Bjork