Hackman, Henchman and a Less Than Thrilling Train Ride
I've never watched Richard Fleischer's "The Narrow Margin" from 1952 but part of me wonders if it better than Peter Hyams's 1990 remake "Narrow Margin". Whilst "Narrow Margin" looks good and has a strong cast it just doesn't seem to draw you into the supposedly thrilling storyline of an assistant DA trying to bring in a witness on a train journey wrought with danger. Of course that point there, bringing in a witness by train doesn't help matters because it is stupid, confined area, nowhere to go and bad guys on a train, seriously is daft. But then it is a daft idea which has been done in other movies such as "Avalanche Express". What this means is that "Narrow Margin" looks good but fails to really get the adrenalin pumping or anywhere close to drawing you to the edge of your seat.
When Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer - Fatal Attraction) witnesses her blind date being murdered by Mafia Boss Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) she goes into hiding fearing for her life. But assistant DA Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman - Hoosiers) learns of her whereabouts and sets about bringing her in as a witness to bring down Watts. Unfortunately for him there is a mole in the DA offices and having flown out to Hunnicut's hideaway to bring her in he is followed by some of Watts's henchmen. Having escaped their initial attempts at silencing Hunnicut, they find themselves aboard a train heading for Vancouver but with Watt's henchmen also aboard it is a dangerous ride, as Caulfield has to do whatever he can to protect Hunnicut.
One of the major issues with "Narrow Margin" is that petty much everything about the movie has been done before, either in full or in part. So we get an opening sequence where we watch a man getting gunned down by a mob boss with a witness to the crime going into hiding because she is scared that she will die if she comes forward. Then we get an assistant DA and a cop managing to work out that there was a witness, who she is and miraculously where she is hiding. And then having gone to bring her in find themselves in trouble because someone one is a double crosser and the mob boss sends heavies after them. All of which leads to a helicopter chasing a jeep through a wood before the action is firmly placed on a train.
Now I know "Narrow Margin" is 20 years old but even so this whole set up is not only stupid but also a little too easy. But what is more stupid is the fact that the drama ends up on a train, a forced point as Caulfield and Hunnicut have little option, but still in my mind a stupid way to go. The trouble is that once we're on the train it becomes all too predictable and you can guess that Caulfield will end up battling bad guys over and over again before the drama ends up on top of the train. And it doesn't help that the couple of twists it throws in are as stupid as traveliing by train and in one case totally wrong with no real build up to explain it.
But I have a feeling that director Peter Hyam's wasn't trying to deliver a classy thriller which gets the audience gripped by an intelligent script rather a thriller which works on a visual, action level. As such it is fair to say that "Narrow Margin" is full of action, whether it is predictable or not, and some is actually quite brilliant. The chase scene with the helicopter tracking the jeep through the woods is brilliantly shot and one of the few really exciting moments. But then some of the action, the perceived danger such as when the action moves to the tops of the train carriages is plain awful and bordering on the cheesy.
The script most certainly doesn't help the performances as whilst Gene Hackman endeavours to make Robert Caulfield more than just a cliche lawman he doesn't succeed. And unfortunately Anne Archer as Carol Hunnicut is a complete cliche as the woman in distress, none of which is Archer's fault as she makes Hunnicut wonderfully vunerable yet with an inner strength, it's just the story and dialogue is so ordinary. The various bad guys such as Harris Yulin as Leo Watts and James Sikking as Nelson fair no better with their cliche characters.
What this all boils down to is that "Narrow Margin" is a disappointment because between the whole set up and the story it is both daft and quite cliche. What it isn't is a classy, clever thriller which will draw you into a clever storyline wraught with danger. But if all you want is a thriller which works on a visual level, with scene after scene of action then it works in an average way.