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Looking Back: Metro (1997)

Eddie Murphy was celebrating a serious victory lap when his 1997 vehicle, “Metro,” opened nationwide. After years of films that either under-performed, left his enormous fan base unhappy or deemed him no longer in his element, he made a big comeback with the 1996  “The Nutty Professor.” Over a decade into his film career, Murphy’s multiple performances in, of all things, a remake of a Jerry Lewis farce, resulted in the kind of critical acclaim, audience adoration and massive box office that marked his ascension a decade earlier. Most theaters showing “The Nutty Professor” had the trailer to “Metro” attached and it appeared that Murphy, once again, had picked an ideal movie showcase. He did, but the movie wasn’t quite what his fans were expecting.

While “The Nutty Professor” was a raunchy PG-13, it played to family audiences and inched its star into many soft, family-friendly movies to come, with PG-ratings and lots of “poop” humor for the small fry set. “Metro,” on the other hand, is in line with Murphy’s work in “Beverly Hills Cop” and “48 HRS.” Although Murphy’s decision to star in “Dr. Doolittle,” “The Haunted Mansion” and a trilogy of “Shrek” tales made him popular with a new generation of filmgoers, the odd choice like “Metro” and “Life” made his older fans long for the return of the sizzling, hard-R rated Eddie. While Murphy has some very funny one-liners in “Metro,” it’s not a comedy, which is actually one of the best things about it.

Murphy stars as Roper, a San Francisco hostage negotiator with a celebrated track record and a keen ability to read an apprehend whoever he’s up against. A serial killer on the loose (played by Michael Wincott) tests Roper’s acumen for outthinking his opponent and goes after Roper’s girlfriend (played by Carmen Ejogo). Roper takes all this on while training a new partner (played by Michael Rappaport).

Thomas Carter’s direction is slick and by-the-book, clearly influenced by early Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer movies like “Bad Boys” and “The Rock.” Thankfully, Carter doesn’t resort to incomprehensible editing, knows how to capture a killer shot and holds the camera still during the big set pieces. Despite the fairly generic story, an overly attentive score and an abrupt ending, “Metro” is one of Murphy’s best vehicles of the 1990’s.

If they had slightly re-tooled the movie and re-titled it “Beverly Hills Cop IV,” it wouldn’t have wound up all that different from what’s here. Murphy is excellent, giving a sharp performance that stops short of playing any scene for easy laughs. He stays firmly in character and, while Roper isn’t all that different than Axel Foley, Murphy’s work remains in line with the film’s mostly serious tone. Wincott, as always, plays a great villain and gives Murphy a formidable co-star.

At one point, Roper instructs his partner to figure out a puzzle involving a Coke bottle, which would require “lateral thinking.” Thankfully, the screenplay takes a similar approach. While we’ve seen this general set-up before, the movie plays with our expectations. The long build up for the Wincott character is handled well (though his “Basic Instinct” tribute on an elevator is a bit much). So is the suspense of when the killer will show up and inevitably kidnap the girlfriend. There’s also the S.F. cable car chase, one of the most thrilling action sequences ever staged in that city. In the same year that gave us “Face/Off,” “The Fifth Element,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Breakdown,” “Switchback” and “Alien Resurrection,” this set piece stands tall with the rest.

“Metro” had the misfortune of opening the same day as a bad Chris Farley vehicle, “Beverly Hills Ninja,” that managed to steal Murphy’s audience. Also, once word of mouth hit that “Metro” wasn’t as funny as “The Nutty Professor,” anticipation for the film cooled. Carter is no Walter Hill but this is a forgotten gem from Murphy. In a decade full of missteps, the tense and exciting “Metro” is worthy showcase for its star and really ought to have been his fourth and final victory lap as Axel Foley.

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