Made in MTL: Street Smart

Our series on vintage Montreal-shot movies continues with this 1987 oddity, starring Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman (as a violent pimp!)

Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series exploring films from the vaults shot and/or set in Montreal.


The Film: Street Smart (1987)

Does Montreal play itself?: No – our fair city is standing in for the ravaged streets of Manhattan before Giuliani’s cleanup campaign, meaning that NYC would soon become perfect for romantic comedies and terrible for scuzzy grindhouse pictures. Shots of the skyline prove that it was at least partially shot in the Big Apple, but the filmmakers have done a pretty good job of stamping the Montreal out of Montreal. While I can’t say that Times Square has ever looked like Shaughnessy Village, the illusion works.

Notable local talent: Apparently it was the buildings and not the talent that attracted the filmmakers to our fair city. While the talent behind the scenes is mostly homegrown, there’s nary a recognizable face to be found onscreen. Expos commentator Terry Haig appears for a second, meaning he’s batting 1.000 in the history of this column. First assistant Jacques Méthé climbed the ranks until he became one of the producers of Cirque du Soleil… so that’s something, I guess.

Most egregious local landmark: According to IMDB, the façade of the Seville theater was dressed up to serve as a peep show in a couple of scenes, but it’s so heavily covered that I would hesitate to call that egregious. The Sun-Life building, however, appears prominently in the Harlem scenes of the film.

As legend would have it, Christopher Reeve wouldn’t sign on to legendary schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ fourth Superman film unless they bankrolled this passion project of his. In an apparent cost-cutting measure, they moved the shooting of a film explicitly set in New York to the similarly squalid streets of Montreal. Whatever money they saved didn’t help in the long run: both movies suffered from obvious budget troubles (though it must be said this film is less of an affront on the eyes and good taste than the execrable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) and both tanked miserably at the box office, precipitating the end of Golan and Globus’s Cannon Films.

Reeve plays an intrepid (though extremely WASPy and Christopher Reeve-like) magazine reporter who pitches a story about a Times Square pimp, only to find that Times Square pimps are a little leery of dudes that look like they stepped out of a J. Crew catalog asking them questions about how they pay their rent. He decides to fabricate a story to meet deadlines, only to find it taking the world by storm and impressing the hell out of rich white men in office buildings. As his star rises, Reeve discovers that the character he’s invented, Tyrone, closely resembles an actual pimp named Fast Black (Morgan Freeman), currently on trial for murder.

In order to save face, Reeve strikes a deal with Freeman wherein Freeman will agree to pretend to be the fictional Tyrone in exchange for… swanky parties? Reeve spends more and more time living the life he’s supposedly observing, starting a dalliance with a prostitute (Kathy Baker) and hanging about with the personable but volatile Freeman in a half-assed attempt to inject his whitebread existence with a bit of urban excitement.

Twenty-five years on, Street Smart hasn’t given much to the world. Reeve is suitably dorky in the role, but bland to the point of forgettable. The film’s would-be inner-city grit would soon be surpassed by the work of younger, hipper and more attuned filmmakers. It features some of the last recordings Miles Davis released in his life, but those come in the form of an intrusive and annoying jazz-funk score.

Yet Street Smart is passably captivating for one very obvious reason: Morgan Freeman. The world’s most notorious grandpa-esque narrator found his big break here at the age of 50 (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), but it’s a pretty different Morgan Freeman than the one we’ve gotten used to. He’s vicious, temperamental and slick, a far cry from the warm and gregarious old man who now tells us about penguins. This Morgan Freeman threatens a prostitute with a pair of scissors, asking her which eye he should remove as punishment for her indiscretions.

The fact that Montreal was thought to be a passable approximation of pre-Giuliani slime-’n’-grime says a lot about the state that Montreal was in at the time. Shot mostly in heavily-repurposed parts of Shaughnessy Village and downtown, the film’s locations have enough grit to be believable as inner-city streets, if not exactly the Harlem it purports to be. This certainly won’t be the first occurrence we’ll see of Montreal playing dress-up, but I’ll fully admit that had I not known that this was filmed in Montreal, I probably would never have noticed.

Only a middling blip in the careers of almost everyone involved (save for Freeman, of course), Street Smart is a watchable crime thriller that had almost every odd stacked against it. It’s no lost classic (Montreal or otherwise) but worth a look for a truly intense performance from Freeman. ■


Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on the podcast Why Does it Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter.

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