A remake of a 1952, Narrow Margin manages to evoke not only an old way of life but a nearly vanished breed of filmmaking. This is an "R" rated action-thriller for actual grown ups. It's got some excitement, suspense and a few expletives, which back in 1990 guaranteed this thing an "R" but today might slip past as "PG-13", but the star of the movie is a spry 60, his leading lady is 42 and the storytelling is meant to appeal to viewers of that age without insulting their intelligence or taste. Outside of maybe the James Bond franchise, nobody really makes action-thrillers for an adult audience anymore. You basically just have to watch whatever cartoonish crap the kids are into.
While on a blind date, Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) witnesses a murder. She flees to Canada to hide but because she's the only one who can connect a menacing mobster (Harris Yulin) to the killing, an insolent assistant DA named Caulfield (Gene Hackman) sets out to bring her back to Los Angeles to testify. After a deadly helicopter attack, Carol and Caulfield wind up trapped on a train as it chugs through the Canadian wilderness with two mob killers on board. With nowhere to run and only a few places to hide, the reluctant witness and the defiant prosecutor have to work together if they hope to survive.
Made in a world before omnipresent cell phones and by a film industry that didn't turn every knob up to 11 for every second of screen time, Narrow Margin looks, feels and acts like a period piece. The setting is only slightly more familiar than the 1890s and the filmmaking has more in common with the 1940s than it does with today. So your reaction to this motion picture will depend on the diversity and leniency of you cinema palate. As put off as you are by the circumstance and the styling of the film, that's how much you'll be bothered by little plot holes and clunky sub plots. For example, Caulfield has several encounters with another woman on the train and they're such a blatant digression from the main story, you can't help but suspect they're leading to something, deflating the surprise when they do.
If you keep an open mind, however, there's something to enjoy about a thriller that's more than an assembly line moving characters from one stunt extravaganza to another. Indeed, it's the personal dynamic between Carol and Caulfield that fills up most of the story, giving it a more honestly dramatic tone than usual. There's a good scene where Anne Archer gets to strut her stuff as Carol finally opens up and unloads on Caulfield and another when Caulfield gets tired of indulging his witness' reluctance and lays this blunt guilt trip on her. And when Caulfield finally gets a face-to-face meeting with the killers, it's a nice bit of business where James B. Sikking carries the action as the lead hit-man until Hackman steps in with his always surprising power to both end the discussion and propel the film forward into its final act.
I wouldn't say Narrow Margin is a great film, though it does have a great cast. J.T. Walsh, M. Emmett Walsh and Harris Yulin are the sort of character actors that you can almost put them in any role, in any sort of tale, and they'll make it better through their presence. Seeing the aforementioned Sikking was enough to make me want to go watch some old episodes of Hill Street Blues and Nigel Bennet as the 2nd hit-man on the train almost makes me want to do the same with Forever Knight. When you've got someone like Hackman leading the way, it's essential that the other performers are able to keep up with him.
Director Peter Hyams also makes good use of his train setting, both for thrills and other aspects of storytelling. I t's an inherently more interesting way to travel and offers up far more opportunities for physical movement than either flying or driving. The rooftop climax used here may somewhat pale when compared to the wire-fu, jump cut, CGI-frenzy of modern action sequences, but that's a bothersome bit of bar raising which is going to plague Hollywood for a very long time.
Though dated, Narrow Margin is still worth seeing, especially when measured against the never ending torrent of misfires, failures and nigh-unwatchable garbage with which the movie industry assaults us. I prefer seeing an old film that's okay to a new one that sucks. Your mileage may vary.