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Narrow Margin
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by Jack Sommersby

"Taut, Terrific Thriller"
4 stars

This is not your typical Amtrak trip, believe me.

Written and directed by the underrated Peter Hyams, Narrow Margin, an enjoyable remake of the fine 1952 The Narrow Margin, manages to make up for its ludicrous elements with more than enough moviemaking panache to put it over the top. Hyams, who was responsible for the mini-classic Sean Connery science-fiction action-adventure Outland, the superior-to-Kubrick's-2001: A Space Odyssey sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and the amusing Gregory Hines/Billy Crystal cop-buddy picture Running Scared, has fashioned a swift, streamlined thriller that never lets up anywhere in its ninety-nine-minute running time. It's a welcome return to form for Hyams, who stumbled last time out with the lackluster crime drama The Presidio, though the main fault there was an unfocused screenplay; here, working with his own material, and refusing to stoop to empty-headed sensationalism, the assurance and style he brings to it is a pleasure to take in -- right from the ominously-scored opening credits you know you're in the capable hands of a director who knows exactly what he's doing. One would like to say it's a also a return to form for star Gene Hackman, but when has this superlative actor not been in top form? In his best performance since Mississippi Burning, he plays Los Angeles Deputy Assistant Attorney Robert Caulfield, who's been doggedly determined at bringing to trial one of the country's biggest crime bosses, Leo Watts (Harris Yulin); two years prior he was close, but his boss had him back off due to there not being sufficient evidence, which Caulfield is still suspicious of. With the help of a city detective, Caulfield is off to the Canadian Rockies to convince a woman, Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer), who was in a posh hotel suite when Watts ordered his henchman to kill his own attorney who was embezzling from him (she was coming back from the bathroom at the time, her presence unknownst to the two) to come back and testify; scared witless, thinking she's safe hiding out in a remote cabin, she insists on having not witnessed anything. Caulfield is busy explaining her limited options when bullets tear into the place from a helicopter that's followed the helicopter Caulfield was in, killing the cop; Caulfield and Carol manage to get to a vehicle and speed away, arriving a few miles later at a small depot with a passenger train approaching. They get onboard, and so do Watts' assassins (though they don't know Carol's face; they do Caulfield's because there's an informer in his office), and the rest of the movie details their attempt to survive until they can get to a city with police resources.

In a less persuasively engineered thriller we'd be tempted to pick apart the logic-loophole-ridden plot six ways from Sunday (Watts' omnipresent reach, with associates available just a phone call away in the smallest Canadian towns, is, of course, odious), but Hyams, having fun with and making the most of the spatially-limited logistics of the central setting, doesn't give us enough time to ponder the implausibilities (as was also the case in his zenith-manipulative but engrossing 1983 legal thriller The Star Chamber). He may not be what many critics regard as an auteur, but he's almost always delivering the goods, and with a higher success rate -- he doesn't bog himself down with grandiose aspirations on high-minded projects that skimp on the fundamentals where you're left grappling for subtext that simply isn't there. Hyams is strictly an entertainer, which isn't the worst quality in the world for an artist; he's blessed with a born instinct of what to look at and how to look at it, and his technical prowess (he also functions as his own cinematographer) propels the acutely-staged action forward. And he's not afraid of incorporating humor into the proceedings, cannily using it to allow us a temporary safety zone just to be brought up short when violence eventually punctuates the proceedings. (The movie's best scene has Caulfield toying with the assassins over drinks, refuting a hefty bribe to simply point out Carol's location while at the same time maintaining ignorance as to who exactly they're talking about -- "Do you really think you can get her off this train?" "Get who?") As he did with the claustrophobic high-tech interiors in Outland, Hyams burrows into the train's compartments, hallways, observation cars and dining room, giving us a lay of the land while making sure to keep things straight so we're clear where the hero and villains are in relation to one another -- and that goes for the top of the train as well, where some first-rate stunt work is performed in an exciting climax. As usual, Hyams gives the supporting actors opportunity to shine, with J.T. Walsh, M. Emmett Walsh and James Sikking all making indelible impressions. Then there's Hackman, bespectacled, wearing a suit, and making the perfect identifiable Everyman we can root for. Caulfield isn't your typical action hero: he makes mistakes, never once brandishes a firearm, and has to use more in the way of brains than brawn to overcome his adversaries; and while the movie doesn't have the sheer entertainment level of a Die Hard, Hackman, serving up characterization instead of caricature, gives Caulfield an innate decency and righteousness that's palpable. He's terrific. Ditto Narrow Margin.

The DVD offers a pleasing widescreen presentation with some informative production notes. An audio commentary by Hyams would've been very welcome.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5944&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/25/13 08:44:36
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell tense entertaing 4 stars
2/16/11 action movie fan good for a remake-great climax on top of moving train 4 stars
5/30/06 tatum Not half bad little actioner; Hyams is so underrated 4 stars
7/04/05 jackal superb, tense thriller. Hackman is terrific 5 stars
6/10/02 R.W. Welch Remake of hugely successful 50's B movie, not bad and has imposing cinematography. 4 stars
5/29/02 Tiffany Faye Hawthorne A taut thriller, inexplicably trashed by critics. 5 stars
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  21-Sep-1990 (R)

  18-Jan-1991 (15)

  07-Feb-1991 (M)

Directed by
  Peter Hyams

Written by
  Peter Hyams

  Gene Hackman
  Anne Archer
  James Sikking
  J.T. Walsh
  M. Emmet Walsh

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