This Brando/De Niro/Norton movie flaunts its Montreal backdrop in every frame

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Gary Farmer, Edward Norton and Robert DeNiro in The Score

The film: The Score (2001)

Does Montreal play itself? Hell yes! Out of all the films I’ve covered here so far, The Score is tied with Taking Lives with how explicit it makes its setting.

Most egregious local landmark: The Montreal Customs House depicted in the film is at 400 Place d’Youville in the Old Port, which is currently occupied by Border Services. I do not know if they have priceless artifacts there, so plan a complicated heist at your own risk. Other locations include Nick’s apartment, at the corner of St-Paul and Bonsecours. The outside of his jazz club is located just a little down St-Paul, though the interiors were created for the film. At one point, Edward Norton’s character is shown jogging from the real port to the Old Port – in fact, the only time the film steps out of Old Montreal is to show the exterior of Nick’s workshop, which is located on De la Roche just north of Mont-Royal, and to show us Brando’s character’s palatial home on Westmount Avenue (many thanks to The Movie District for confirmation on many of these locations!)

Notable local talent: The vast majority of the supporting cast is local. Serge Houde and Jean-René Ouellet play two security guards at the custom house, while Martin Drainville and Claude Despins are two of DeNiro’s employees at the jazz club. Mark Camacho (who’s in nearly every Montreal-shot movie of this era) pops up as reluctant muscle for a blackmailer later in the film.

I’ve lived in Montreal for pretty much my entire adult life, so I have little to compare it to, but it seems to me that it is surpassed only by New Orleans in how tourism affects the choice of shooting locations. Nearly every movie shot here spends at least part of its time in Old Montreal, skewing unsurprisingly close to the locations you may experience if you come to the city with Hollywood money. Jazz also features extremely prominently in a lot of Montreal-shot movies, particularly from the turn of the century; while it’s true that boomer-aged filmmakers have an affinity for vocal jazz that knows no bounds, I have to assume that the presence of a jazz festival in Montreal allows them to fully indulge their fantasies of skiddly-bop-skiddly-bop-pa-pa-pa without fear of reprisal.

Frank Oz’s The Score is the rare kind of Made in MTL film that is actually set in the city and goes to great lengths to add texture to the margins that will make that fact undeniable. Many of the supporting characters speak French, and all of the film’s leads speak a little French at some point. (They all pronounce it Mohn-treal, however.) Though the film’s locations are ultimately made up for the purposes of the story, locations in the story are accurate. When DeNiro says he’s at the corner of de la Montagne and Ottawa, he actually is. For all of its attention to detail, however, it does feel like the decision to set The Score in Montreal came about after a drunken night at Club chasse et pêche, a chance encounter with the cobblestone streets and the emphatic declaration that it’s “SO EUROPEAN”.

Robert DeNiro stars as Nick, a jazz-club owner who sometimes moonlights as a high-powered thief of priceless artifacts. Nick has always made it a point not to shit where he eats, taking on jobs as far away from Montreal as possible, but Max (Marlon Brando) – the fence that usually gives him work – has made him an offer that he can’t refuse. With the help of their man on the inside, Jack (Edward Norton), they are going to steal a priceless scepter from inside the Montreal Customs House and sell it to an interested party for a cool $4-million. It’s more risk than Nick is usually comfortable with: Jack’s tactic to get on the inside is to pose as a mentally challenged man and get a job as a handyman, where he consistently uncovers more complications. The payday is tantalizing, however, and Nick soon learns from Max that there’s more to it that just cold, hard cash.

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Marlon Brando in The Score

The Score is about as straightforward a heist movie as I can imagine. There are no real inversions on the genre, and director Frank Oz coolly dissects the action with dispassionate professionalism. Nick is the kind of wearied but consummate professional that are a dime-a-dozen in these kinds of films, and Jack the hot-headed young punk who continually threatens to get in over his head. (Brando’s Max is a little more volatile but mostly employed as texture; he mumbles non-sequiturs and quaffs mineral water in the background of extreme long shots that betray the fact that Brando had open contempt for Oz during the shoot. It would be his last released film.) It’s tempting to say that it’s the kind of movie that wouldn’t be made today, but it would: it would just star John Cusack and one of the also-rans from Twilight and have been made for $6-million in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The Score’s workmanlike approach to genre is both a strength and a flaw. On one hand, the heist film model is so tried-and-true that it’s entertaining no matter what. The heist film is one of that handful of genres that can nearly always satisfy even by sticking to the barest of bones. There’s something primal about seeing the way that Oz lingers over the meticulously dull work of boring through a safe or avoiding security cameras. The Score is satisfying enough in its details that it grips you long enough to forget that the whole thing is almost parodically linear and safe in its narrative.

There’s a notion that films like The Score are the “grown-up” kinds of films that Hollywood is no longer interested in making. Some 15 years on, The Score doesn’t just feel grown-up, it feels a little stuffy, what with its love of elevator-level jazz (Mose Allison even appears briefly), its mahogany-hued cinematography and its mistrust of anyone under the age of 40. (The most embarrassing relic in the whole film is an Adderall-popping hacker character who lives in his mother’s basement and yells at her constantly while jabbering on about firewalls, rolling both the dumbest clichés of the Xtreme youth and the laziest references to DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin in one convenient package.) The Score came out at a time when Hollywood was desperate to imbue its product with as much hip, extreme, Mountain Dew, X-Games imagery as possible and it was seen as an antidote to this kind of film.

If you take a step back and observe the forest rather than the trees, however, The Score barely has any reason to exist. It’s one of those “well, if he’s doing it, I certainly can’t say no” situations that led to the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of DeNiro, Brando and Norton, who, at the time, was being spoken of in the same hushed tones as his co-stars in this film; time has taught us that this was perhaps premature). Their casting seems to be the thing that floats this solidly unremarkable heist film from start to finish. I remember really liking The Score when it came out, but I was also fully aware that many movies that I really liked at that time are perhaps aggressively mediocre at best. Removed from the context of its release, The Score fares perhaps better than I had imagined, if only because it never dared to do much more than stick to the bare minimum.  ■

See more films Made in MTL here.

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