There has been a body discovered in a fountain in the city of New Orleans, and Detective Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid) is quickly on the scene to do that trick he always does of identifying the body - or at least it's a trick if the corpse belongs to that of a known criminal. Tonight's victim is a Mafia gangster, nobody high up in the organisation but significant all the same, and Remy decides to bring in his boss for questioning the next day, the boss being pretty notable in the Mob. This is another of Remy's tricks, as he's not able to charge the man with anything but wants to put him out, so nothing apparently comes of this - much to the chagrin of internal affairs investigator Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin)...
Here was a film that everyone seemed to agree on: it was nothing special as a mystery, but as a romance it was something well worth catching thanks to that all important chemistry between the two leads. Quaid and Barkin are reputedly very fond of this film, and when you see how good they are in it, and how good they are together, you can understand why as they elevate what could have been a fairly basic police corruption thriller into an engaging relationship movie. This was the eighties where the notion of the buddy movie, especially applied to the cop genre, was the popular style of the day, and The Big Easy started out as one of those, with a twist.
That twist being the two "buddies" were lovers, and Remy wastes no time in getting Anne into bed as they have barely met but he is wining and dining her, then going back to her place (after foiling a mugging which brings them closer, naturally) and going as far he can with her before getting distracted by his pager. We think we are going to be settling into some well worn clichés at this stage, but Anne's sense of justice gets in the way and soon Remy's willingness to be on the take apparently dooms their relationship before it really has a chance to blossom. Not that he is the only one in his department who gets up to that kind of lawbreaking, as far as we can see they're all at it.
Remy is very laid back about this whole set up, as easygoing about it as Anne is appalled, but his excuse is that everyone else in the force is doing it, including his Captain (Ned Beatty), so why should he be any different? The businesses get their interests protected, the police get their kickbacks, so who is really losing out? With an attitude like that, it's no wonder Anne breaks it off with him, though we suspect rightly that with such a strong element as the Quaid and Barkin spark they won't be apart for long. That does not prevent Anne taking Remy to court for taking an unofficial bonus from a bar owner, ironically as it was the Captain who was supposed to be attending the bar this time.
Remy contrives to get his charges dropped through some admittedly ingenious means, but the fact that he still isn't playing fair irks Anne so much that when he tries to win her back by pretending to have her arrested, it doesn't work and she makes the sharp observation that he thinks he's one of the good guys when he's actually one of the bad guys. Here is where it hits him, and us for that matter, that underneath all that roguish charm is someone who exploits their privileged position in life to his own advantage, and rides roughshod over the people he is supposed to be protecting legitimately in the process. Yes, this does involve the detective undergoing his redemption, and yes it is all too predictable, but we have so enjoyed seeing Quaid and Barkin sparring with each other and convincingly running hot and cold in their characters that it's a pleasure to watch. Could have used more thrills in the plot, true, but the stars are excellent. Music by Brad Fiedel.