Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This snappy thriller is one of the better offerings of The Cannon Group in those few short years
when Golan and Globus attempted to break into the higher strata of filmmaking. A clever script is given
uneven direction, but the result got plenty of attention (and an Oscar nomination) for powerhouse actor
Morgan Freeman. Also scoring solidly is Kathy Baker, who whips the thankless role of a generic
Times Square hooker into a soufflé part.
Magazine journalist Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve) takes a chance to save his
job and fabricates a story about a Times Square pimp he calls Tyrone. Everyone presumes that the
basis for the story is a real pimp named 'Fast Black' (Morgan Freeman) who happens to be involved in
a murder charge, and soon Fisher's up to his neck in trouble. The judge wants his non-existent
'notes' and the streetwise criminal wants an alibi, and neither are afraid to use threats to get their
way. Jonathan's also caught between his girlfriend
Alison (Mimi Rogers) and Fast Black's main streetwalker Punchy (Kathy Baker) with whom he forms a
If Jerry Schatzberg's direction had a little more finesse, Street Smart might have been more
than a modest hit. In 1987 Cannon was still fronting good distribution for its higher-tier
product, and this sleeper had critics praising Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker to the skies. Their scenes
have an immediacy and power that eluded many another saga of life on the sidewalks
of New York. After avoiding the blaxploitation genre in the 70s (he started out as a regular on the
kid's educational program The Electric Company) Freeman dives into the role of a domineering
pimp, and makes of it a breakthrough opportunity.
The toughest thing to do in a modern crime film is to present scenes of menace and jeopardy that have teeth;
plenty of crimers invent all kinds of grisly murders, etc., to little dramatic
effect. Freeman grabs every situation he's in, fiercely intimidating his girls, his chauffeur Reggie,
and the foolish reporter Jonathan Fisher. He's in a bind for a murder he didn't commit, but when
pushed, we know he's capable of anything.
Street Smart is really about the Christopher Reeve character. Although he has the majority
of the screen time his part is perfunctorily handled, with the various magazine execs and legal
troublemakers sketched on the broader side. Reporter Fisher's boss is a real 5th Avenue bozo. When
Fast Black complains of being patronized at a (pretty amusing) uptown party, we really don't
think the boss is capable of it.
Christopher Reeve isn't bad but he doesn't command the screen or really make us believe in the Fisher
character with any great depth. Here's a bigtime scribe who cheats on both his profession and his
girlfriend, but Fisher's reaction to the consequences lack complexity. It all seems an inconvenience.
Likewise, his new-found job as a television man on the streets is a too-easy reward for dishonesty that
presents us with some sub-60 minutes scenes that are a little too pat: NYC scammers falling into TV sting
camera setups. etc.
But the other half of the story is unconventional and full of surprises. Fast Black is the smartest
man in the film and plays his side of the game perfectly, even when he's dishing out the violent
threats. And Kathy Baker is practically an ad for the Times Square hooker as official NYC greeter.
Her convincing seduction of Reeve is like shooting fish in a barrel. Seen only intermittently in films,
her first screen role was as Louise Shepard in The Right Stuff.
Mimi Rogers is reasonable in a lesser role, and Andre Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre fame)
is there but no standout.
Besides a rushed pace and some unfortunate editorial choices (odd dissolves in the party scene, the
song 'Natural Woman' superimposed over the seduction scene as if it wouldn't play by itself),
Street Smart falls victim to clever plotting that makes things happen far too conveniently.
Fisher is twice imprisoned for contempt, once for not giving up his article notes and once for
saying they never existed. (spoiler) When he later fabricates some notes, giving Fast Black the alibi
he wants, the Fisher character really takes a dive in ethical stature. Not only that, but the
detail-skipping begs an important question. Why would the judge let Fisher go after finding out he'd
withheld the information that Black had an alibi. After two flagrant lies, why would the Judge believe
Fisher's third lie?
Finally (spoiler again), the end of Street Smart is a little lacking in that it allows Fisher
to wrap up his problems like one of his TV sting operations. Fast Black (spoiler spoiler) is
conveniently eliminated, as if he were the main culprit. Fisher gets off scot-free, retaining his
career and getting his girlfriend back (with some stitches on her stomach). In reality, Fisher's lying
are what caused everything, and the scummy street life that the film seems so afraid of (this was
before NYC's 90s clean-up, I think) is once again victimized so that the yuppies can be secure.
There's one symbolic image late in the show involving a white dove that communicates beautifully to
most audiences. It's both unexpected and eerily effective.
MGM's DVD of Street Smart is a flipper with two encodings, adapted flat and a naturally-preferred
16:9 version. Colors are good and the soundtrack punchy; the DVD an excellent way to see this film &
enjoy two of the better performances of the late 80s.
The trailer on board is an excellent example of the work of the Cannon trailer department at this time.
It expresses the excitement and some of the content of the film in a freewheeling montage format, but
without telling the whole plot or boring us with moronic runs of narrator copy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Street Smart rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 20, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson