The film was later adapted for a television series for two seasons on the USA Network (1996–1997).
Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid) is a New Orleans police lieutenant who investigates the murder of a local mobster. His investigation leads him to suspect that fellow members of the police force may be involved.
Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin), a state district attorney, is sent to investigate alleged police corruption. After seeing firsthand some unorthodox practices by Remy, Anne accuses him of being on the take. He argues that she does not have an understanding of how the system works in New Orleans for police.
Despite Osborne's suspicious and apprehensive feelings towards him, they form a relationship. McSwain is caught accepting payoffs in an Internal Affairs sting, and Osborne has the burden of prosecuting him. With the assistance of fellow officers within the police force, the evidence is destroyed and suppressed. McSwain is cleared of the charges, at which point Anne, now clued in, is faced with the conflict of her personal feelings for Remy and her duty to uphold the law. It is later revealed that Jack Kellom (Ned Beatty), Remy's boss and the two detectives De Soto (John Goodman) and Dodge (Ebbe Roe Smith) are behind the murder, and a stash of heroin is hidden at a boat yard. Kellom goes to the boat and is confronted by De Soto and Dodge. Kellom suggests getting rid of the drugs, but De Soto shoots Kellom. Remy and Anne arrive and are confronted by De Soto and Dodge, and a shootout starts, resulting in De Soto being shot by a fatally wounded Kellom, and Dodge being shot with a flare gun by Remy, which starts a fire, and Remy and Anne make a run for it in the nick of time just before the boat explodes.
The final scene shows Remy dancing with Anne where it appears they had just been married.
Filming took 50 days and the lead actors rehearsed three weeks before the start of principal photography.
The original title of the script was "Windy City", and was set in Chicago. The title was briefly changed to "Nothing But The Truth".
Well-known New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison makes a cameo appearance as a judge. Garrison became known for his Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories and his own investigation into JFK's murder from New Orleans in the 1960s.
The city of New Orleans and its atmospherics function as a protagonist in the film. This is evident from the beginning of the film: The opening is an aerial shot of the New Orleans bayou and the cajun band BeauSoleil plays "Zydeco Gris Gris" on the soundtrack (title sequence).
The producers used well-known locations such as Tipitina's, Antoine's, Blaine Kern's warehouse full of Mardi Gras parade floats, and a French Quarter strip joint, to flesh out the mood of the film.
The film had a limited opening on August 21, 1987 and grossed $353,259. It widened a week where its gross was $3,626,031 from 1,138 screens and the total receipts for the run were $17,685,307. In its widest release the film was featured in 1,219 theaters. The motion picture was in circulation five weeks.
Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, lauded the film, and wrote, "The Big Easy is one of the richest American films of the year. It also happens to be a great thriller. I say 'happens,' because I believe the plot of this movie is only an excuse for its real strength: the creation of a group of characters so interesting, so complicated and so original they make a lot of other movie people look like paint-by-number characters."
Sheila Benson, writing for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, "Screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr. sets up the conflict, and director Jim McBride fleshes it out with devastating, sexy assurance..."
Film critic Vincent Canby was a bit tougher on the film, and wrote, "Remy and Anne are made for each other, or would have been if The Big Easy were the sophisticated comedy it could have been...[the film] was directed by Jim McBride who one day is going to come up with a commercial movie that works all the way through, and not just in patches."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 88% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 33 reviews with the consensus: "Loaded with atmosphere and drenched in the sizzling chemistry between Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, The Big Easy remains one of the strongest -- and steamiest -- thrillers of the 1980s." The film is praised for the accuracy of Quaid's Cajun accent, which he meticulously researched in preparation for the role. However, residents of the New Orleans area were not so pleased, referring to it as "cringe-inducing."1987 — Cognac Festival du Film Policier, Cognac, France: Grand Prix
1987 — Valladolid International Film Festival: Best Actor, Dennis Quaid
1988 — Independent Spirit Awards: Best Male Lead Dennis Quaid
1988 — Sant Jordi Awards: Best Foreign Actress, Ellen Barkin
1988 — Anthony Award: Best Movie
1988 — Independent Spirit Awards: Best Director, Jim McBride; Best Feature, Stephen J. Friedman
1988 — Casting Society of America: Artios Award; Best Casting for Feature Film, Drama, Lynn Stalmaster and David Rubin
1988 — Edgar Allan Poe Awards: Edgar; Best Motion Picture, Daniel Petrie Jr.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Mystery Film
The film was first shown in 1986 at various film festivals including the Cognac Festival du Film Policier, the Davao City Film Festival in the Philippines, the Valladolid International Film Festival in Spain, and the Sundance Film Festival before being picked up for distribution. According to Robert Redford, founder of Sundance, The Big Easy was the first film sold at the festival. Redford tells of dragging David Puttnam, then the head of Columbia Pictures, to see the film. After the screening, Puttnam decided to pick up the movie for distribution.
On February 2, 1999 a video and DVD of the film were released on the Trimark label as part of the label's "Gold Reel Collection."
The film inspired its television series, which premiered on the USA Cable Network August 11, 1996. Tony Crane played McSwain and Susan Walters played Anne Osbourne. Actress Leslie Bibb also appeared as a recurring role in the series. There were approximately 35 episodes broadcast over two seasons. Although Daniel Petrie Jr. (who wrote the screenplay to the original film) was credited as an executive producer of the series, Petrie has stated that he was "not at all" involved in the series, receiving only "a credit and money".
With the action taking place in New Orleans, and the main protagonist's Cajun family background (Remy McSwain), the producers of the film used cajun, zydeco, R&B, and gospel music in the soundtrack.
An original motion picture soundtrack album was assembled by label executive Danny Holloway and released in 1987 on the Island label. The album contains twelve tracks including "Tipitina," played by New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, the New Orleans anthem "Iko Iko," by The Dixie Cups, and a ballad, "Closer To You," written and performed by actor Dennis Quaid who also performs the song in the film. Other performers on the album include BeauSoleil, Buckwheat Zydeco, Dewey Balfa, Aaron Neville and The Neville Brothers.