For decades, the month of January has unequivocally been viewed as the definitive month of films where movies go to die. Most often, they’re right about that—after the year-end glut of blockbusters and genuinely great films in December, the studios unleash their back pile of B- grade action, uninspired romantic comedies, and tired, X-treme horror movies.
In 1970, M*A*S*H managed to get its initial release in the month, but that was 44 years ago. Since then, we’ve seen the same deadbeat lineups show up year after year—in the midst of that, however, a few genuinely good movies—or guilty pleasures, if you please—have slipped through the cracks. Such as 1997’s Metro:
First look at the poster. Then, watch the trailer:
Everything points to Metro being Beverly Hills Cop IV except for the fact that it trades L.A. for San Francisco. Now, forget that either of those things exist. Dumped into an inconspicuous Martin Luther King Day weekend release 17 years ago, this is Eddie Murphy’s penultimate gasp at R-rated material, and a surprisingly great at that. Metro was Murphy’s follow-up to The Nutty Professor, and likewise, audiences expected something a little zanier than what was given. Director Thomas Carter (Coach Carter) and writer Randy Feldman (Tango & Cash) delivered a slick, exciting action-thriller where Murphy functions more as comic relief to the deftly serious events and tone of the film. Murphy plays Scott Roper, a fairly insubordinate SFPD hostage negotiator whose quarry—menacing, nihilistic jewel thief Korda (Michael Wincott)—goes free and puts Roper on a whirlwind through the city as a violent crime spree breaks out. Roper gets paired with Michael Rapaport’s hotshot sniper McCall, whose green experience clashes with Roper’s obsessive pursuit.
It all sounds like standard buddy cop fare and a rehash of some of Murphy’s star-making efforts—after all, it’s the loudmouth persona of Axel Foley in the city of Reggie Hammond. What soars about Metro, however, is its unexpected courage to subvert those expectations. Unlike a great majority of his work in the 90’s, Eddie Murphy’s performance doesn’t exist solely for the function of goofing off. He makes Scott Roper a serious cop who happens to have a wisecracking sense of humor. He takes his job too seriously, alienating his superiors. His chemistry with leading lady Carmen Ejogo is extremely strong and it brings out a side of both the actor and the character that brings about a sense of affectionate levity
Michael Wincott—too often cited as a poor man’s Gary Oldman—plays up Korda as one of the more threatening and brutal action villains of the era. He has an intensity that runs parallel with the film that establishes a legitimate aura of danger, an unpredictable and conniving crook without a forgiving nerve in his body. Often, the action movies of the 80’s and 90’s have villains who are well-performed but written with a perfunctory agenda to advance the story, but Korda is a bastard you not only want to fail, he’s an endangering presence.
For a high-profile star vehicle, Metro has found itself lost in time due to the false assumptions of audiences and critics. Is it a comedy? Is it action? It’s the latter, absolutely. Thomas Carter—a veteran TV auteur who most memorably helmed the iconic Miami Vice pilot—pulls off some truly exciting action setpieces, including a no-holds-barred San Francisco car chase and a tensely built climax at a shipping facility (the last resort of all genre climaxes). The seriousness is undercut by Murphy’s star presence, and as his penultimate R-rated film, this is easily his most undervalued. It made a shrug-worthy dent that faded away in early ’97, and unjustly so—Metro deserves much attention to be one of Eddie’s better efforts.