Big city, big screen

All of a sudden, Philadelphia is the new New York of the film industry

Actors Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller star in 21 BRIDGES
The movie ‘21 Bridges’ is the latest set for release that was shot almost entirely in Philadelphia but is said to take place elsewhere, the latest in a long line of recent flicks to follow a similar path. | Image: Matt Kennedy/Copyright Motion Picture Artwork © 2017 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved

The arrival of “21 Bridges,” the new film starring Black Panther Chadwick Boseman, is one of many movies that exist in a bizarre multiverse: 

It was shot mostly in one city, while it’s completely set in another. 

The film, which opens Nov. 22, had a months-long shoot in Philadelphia last fall but is set in New York. The characters have heavy New York accents, and the plot very much centers on such New York institutions as the NYPD and the city’s titular bridges. 

Directed by Brian Kirk and produced by the “Avengers: Endgame” team of Anthony and Joe Russo, “21 Bridges” does a better job than most of faking the city it’s in. It substitutes Philadelphia’s Chinatown for New York’s, subs in Philly alleys for Manhattan ones and, in one scene, films in Ridley Township to sub for a cop’s house that’s supposed to be somewhere in the outer boroughs. Kirk, who has directed episodes of “Game of Thrones,” has the logistical chops to make Philly appear like New York. 

The movie itself is an entertaining, watchable police procedural that has both echoes of Sidney Lumet’s ‘70s New York cop thrillers, and modern-day resonance about both police brutality and Blue Lives Matter ideology. It’s got an outstanding hook: several cops are murdered in a botched drug deal, the suspects are somewhere in Manhattan, and with the city locked down, it’s up to a police detective (Boseman) – one with a long record of shooting suspects – to bring the killers in by sunrise. 

Because the film is set over the course of a single night, with most of it taking place after dark, it’s easier to make streets look like any other city. The production also did some shooting in New York, which entailed capturing seemingly endless skyline establishing shots, plus an extended sequence in and around Grand Central Terminal. 

The ruse is kept up for most of the film’s running time – with the exception of a chase scene, near the end – through what we’re told is New York’s Meatpacking District but is obviously Center City Philadelphia, including a trip on a subway train that’s much more SEPTA than MTA. Even a couple of real Philly restaurants are in plain view, like DanDan (on 16th and Chestnut) and Ocean Prime (about a block away on 15th and Sansom). It’s a minor surprise that NYPD Pizza, a New York Police Department-themed pizzeria that for some reason is located on 11th and Walnut in Philadelphia, doesn’t appear as a location. 

J.K. Simmons, Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller are all played New York cops throughout Philly streets during the filming of 21 Bridges which opens Nov. 22. | Image Matt Kennedy

Know that “21 Bridges” isn’t an anomaly, in recent years there’s been a lot of this sort of thing. 

“The Upside,” with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, was a big hit when it came out earlier this year. It was the first feature film Hart ever shot in his hometown, although it was set in New York. I had assumed that the film shot its interiors and exteriors in New York, but I’m told it expertly faked some outdoor Philly locations.  


The superhero movie “Shazam,” earlier this year, went the other way. It was set in Philadelphia, but shot locally only for a couple of days, with most of the shoot taking place in Canada. The movie included both the Art Museum steps and much of the Philly skyline, but there were some goofs – it sets a major set piece at the nonexistent “Chilladlephia Winter Carnival,” and a convenience store scene included not a TastyKake or bag of Herr’s in sight. 

You may remember the 2010 film “How Do You Know,” a bizarre romantic comedy flop starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, that shot throughout Center City for several months the year before. That film was attempting to pass off Philly as Washington, D.C., but wasn’t fooling anyone for most of its running time, including recognizable street corners on Chestnut Street throughout. 

“Does it matter if these films are actually set in Philly? I don’t know that it does, so long as they do what movies are supposed to — keep up the illusion.” 

Meanwhile, “Gosnell,” the movie from last year about the notorious West Philly abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, was shot in Oklahoma and made not even a cursory attempt to make its locations resemble Philadelphia.

Due in part to the efforts of Sharon Pinkenson and her team at the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, movie and TV productions have been coming to Philadelphia in the last couple of years, as anyone who’s run into Jason Segel or Andre 3000 lately can attest; J.K. Simmons also popped up everywhere around town while “21 Bridges” was filming. 

Tack on the new M. Night Shyamalan-produced Apple TV+ series “Servant,” which is loaded with local references, set to arrive later this month. 

Does it matter if these films are actually set in Philly? I don’t know that it does, so long as they do what movies are supposed to: 

Keep up the illusion. 

  • Steven Silver Headshot

    Stephen Silver is a writer, film critic, podcaster and editor who has worked in the Philadelphia region since 2005. In addition to Philadelphia Weekly, his work has appeared in New York Press, Tablet, Philadelphia Magazine, Philly Voice, AppleInsider, The Jerusalem Post, Fox29.com, and Broad Street Review.