Monday, June 20, 2016

Retro Review: STREET SMART (1987)

(US - 1987)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg. Written by David Freeman. Cast: Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Morgan Freeman, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory, Anna Maria Horsford, Frederick Rolf, Erik King, Rick Aviles. (R, 97 mins)

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, who guided a young Al Pacino to his breakout role in 1971's THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, 1987's STREET SMART represents Cannon/Golan-Globus in serious mode, a gritty look at ambition and ethics in the world of TV and print journalism. Christopher Reeve is Jonathan Fisher, a reporter in a slump, pulling the desperation move of fabricating a piece about 24 hours in the life of a NYC pimp he dubs "Tyrone." "Tyrone" has alarming similarities to Fast Black (Morgan Freeman), a sadistic pimp who's facing a murder charge. The article becomes a sensation and Fisher the toast of the town, but when the D.A.'s office wants to subpoena his notes--which don't exist--and Fast Black wants him to produce notes that provide him with an alibi, things quickly head south for the fabulist--with his employers, with a ruthless Fast Black, and with his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers), when he gets dangerously close to Punchy (Kathy Baker), one of Fast Black's long-suffering hookers.

STREET SMART still has the look and feel of a Cannon film, and though there's some NYC location work, most of it was shot in Montreal, which isn't the most convincing understudy for pre-Giuliani Times Square. A longtime pet project of Reeve's (he only did the embarrassing, corner-cutting SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE for Cannon because they agreed to make this), STREET SMART was supposed to be the actor's latest shot at escaping his SUPERMAN image but is best known today for launching the little-known, 50-year-old Freeman, up to then a jobbing character actor in minor roles going back to 1970. Prior to his portrayal of Fast Black, Freeman's biggest gig was as a cast member of the PBS educational series THE ELECTRIC COMPANY during its 1971-77 run, where his recurring characters included Easy Reader, Mel Mounds, and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire. Though STREET SMART was not a hit, Freeman stole the film from Reeve and made enough of an impression on critics and the few who did see it that he scored a surprise Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, losing to Sean Connery in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Everything Freeman does as Fast Black commands the screen--facial expressions, adjusting his ballsack, the snarling look when he bites his lower lip, or just his terrifying glare. He takes what could've been a cardboard cliche in any random Cannon genre offering and adds depth and complexity while turning him into one of the most terrifying villains of the '80s ("It's not your face, bitch. It's my face. My tits and my ass," he tells one of his girls when she begs him to not cut her with a broken bottle). For the most part, STREET SMART is a TV-movie with a lot of F-bombs, and sometimes it's kind of dumb and takes some too-easy shots at Manhattan high society (represented by Fisher's editor, played by MY DINNER WITH ANDRE's Andre Gregory), but Freeman's unforgettable performance makes it mandatory viewing.

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