Published January 1, 1997
We might call Metro by Tom Carter a palimpsest movie—one where you can read another text beneath the one on the surface. To some extent this is true of all Hollywood movies, which are made (as they nearly always have been made) with a cavalier disregard for the writer’s craft. At some point in the very early history of this script’s re-writing, it might well have been a good film, and you can still see the traces of the film it could have been. In fact, up until about half way through it, I was thinking what a pleasant surprise it was to find the picture not at all bad, though always treading on the brink (inevitably for this kind of cop movie) of cliché.
There was, for instance, some interesting stuff going on with the gambling habit of the hero, Scott Roper (Eddie Murphy) which might have meshed interestingly with his job as a hostage negotiator for the San Francisco police. The first time we see Scott in a hostage negotiation, the thing is handled stylishly by both director and actor, and there are more interesting things going on with the ex- and possibly future girlfriend, Veronica, or Ronnie (Carmen Ejogo), now dating a high-priced baseball player, and a new, wet-behind-the-ears partner, Kevin McCall (Michael Rapaport) who is nevertheless a veteran of the SWAT team and so likely to have a very different attitude towards negotiation. Then, of course, there is the whole mystery of hostage negotiation itself, comic potentialities in the fact that, when Scott’s car is repossessed he has to use an old pickup truck as his police vehicle, and dramatic possibilities in the hints of police corruption.
Though not all of the most originality, the mix of these ingredients promised interesting things. But the film wastes them all, simply dropping them one by one as it finally tips over into cliché completely. Maybe it’s the fact that it is set in San Francisco, and they just couldn’t resist another car chase through those hilly streets. Hey, they throw in and a hijacked cable car too, and make the chase go on for so long that it begins to get boring. And once they decided on doing the car chase number, the filmmakers must have ben unable to stop themselves from making the rest of Metro ever more ludicrously improbable. It must have been an exquisite self-indulgence for someone’s postmodern sensibility to end the picture with a girl tied to a veneering machine, a mad, sneering villain and several large explosions. Will anyone ever be able to sell American movie audiences on the virtues of understatement? Not on this showing.
Michael Wincott does a creditable job as Michael Korda, the bad guy. He, too, is potentially interesting: a jazz afficionado and amateur jeweler, he seems to have a touchingly close relationship with a slightly retarded cousin, Clarence (Paul Ben-Victor). But we never learn anything more about him than this, or anything interesting, except possibly for the Neapolitan proverb: “When you think you’re fucking them, they’re fucking you.” Eddie does his Murphy routine in response to this: “We ain’t in fuckin’ Naples,” he explodes; “forget about that fuckin’ Naples shit!” Old Eddie, what a hoot! M. Korda (there’s a Neapolitan name for you) simply becomes your generic cold-blooded killer with the luck of the devil—until he is incinerated in the final, generic car explosion.
Oops, I gave away another ending. As if you couldn’t guess! But then that’s the difference between movies and real life: in real-life a vicious cop-killer like Korda who had the incredible luck to be made a trustee in the prison dry-cleaning shop even before there was any trial, and who then had the even more incredible luck of being able to escape by hiding in the dry-cleaning carousel while the guard is talking on the phone, would hardly be expected to go for the trifecta by kidnapping the arresting officer’s girlfriend, tying her to a veneering machine, and using this to force the cop to steal his swag from the evidence room and bring it to him, alone, at a deserted dock/warehouse/factory at midday. This is after he has, from his jail cell, sent poor Clarence to his death on a (naturally unsuccessful) mission to kill the same girlfriend, apparently for no other reason than vengeance. It must be one of those Neapolitan things. Anyway, you wouldn’t understand it.