Narrow Margin (1990)
Narrow Margin (1990)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: September 21st, 1990 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Peter Hyams Actors: Gene Hackman, Anne Archer, James Sikking, J.T. Walsh, M. Emmet Walsh, Susan Hogan, Nigel Bennett, J.A. Preston




ublishing company editor Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) meets New York law firm senior partner Michael Tarlow (J.T. Walsh) for a blind date at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. She’s divorced and he’s a widower, each looking for an opportunity to take some time away from their busy schedules. When he receives a message to make a phone call to an important client, Michael takes Carol upstairs to his luxury suite.

The innocent situation turns sour when ruthless mobster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) and his associate Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett) push their way into the room, explaining that they’re aware of a sizable sum of money that Tarlow stole – and that the only way he can pay them back is with his life. After permanently silencing the lawyer, with Carol witnessing the whole ordeal from just behind the bathroom door, the underworld kingpin leaves. Hunnicut immediately flees the country, hiding out in Canada, but L.A. Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman), along with Detective Sergeant Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh), track her down, intent on making her testify. She’s unwilling at first (“I’ll take my chances”), though she’s quickly convinced when a helicopter descends from seemingly out of nowhere, spraying bullets across her remote cabin – and destroying Caulfield’s own transport. With assassins hot on their trail, Carol and Robert must brave a full day’s journey by train to Vancouver, outwitting and avoiding an untimely demise at every turn.

Hackman is notably older, but he’s no less believable as an action star. He doesn’t sport the rippling muscles of the various he-men from the blow-’em-up competitors of the ’90s, but his experienced, cool-under-pressure agent knows his way around tense situations. He can maneuver a truck through dense terrain, elude machine gun shootouts, and fistfight thugs, right alongside negotiating with brutes and making glib remarks (he’s excellent at smugness in the face of danger). And since this film wishes to be action-packed as much as it is a slow-burn thriller, there are explosions, gunplay, and stunts (such as a dive through a glass window and some very impressive brawling and dangling along the top of the train), all of which are unnecessary but inoffensive. Archer is also suitable in her role, sharing a decent bit of humor in conversations with her leading man, chiefly to deflect the morbidity of their plight.

Although director Peter Hyams (“Running Scared,” “The Presidio”) is credited as the sole writer (during the opening titles, at least), “Narrow Margin” is actually a remake of the 1952 film noir of about the same name (specifically, “The Narrow Margin”). Many of the same gimmicks are at play (such as a little boy full of suspicion and a fat man who comically blocks hallways), yet the plot translates nicely to this updated setting. Sticking killers and witnesses together on a claustrophobic, moving vessel, with tight passages and tiny roomettes that provide few opportunities to evade confrontations, is a spectacular formula for suspense.

Unfortunately, the editing leaves something to be desired, considering that gaps in time are presented with slow fade-outs, as if this were made for television. Additionally, rather than designing a chase that spans nearly a day, the script could have been adjusted to be real-time, thereby eliminating the need for breaks in the action. But perhaps most disappointing of all is the finale, which manages to be outrageously anticlimactic, even with a few twists that audiences might not guess (unless they’ve seen the original).

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10