Skip to main content

I like my side of the courtroom. The pay’s not so good, but the air is a lot better.

Narrow Margin
(1990)

(SPOILERS) A lean, efficient little thriller, as you might expect from consummate journeyman Peter Hyams. As you might also expect from Hyams, Narrow Margin is unable to make that extra bound into the arena of a truly great lean, efficient little thriller. Nevertheless, this is quality B-material, with Gene Hackman doing his marvellously meat-and-potatoes darnedest to save a witness from hitmen on a train to Vancouver.

Carol Hunnicut: Protect me? You’re the one who put me in danger.

I’d suggest Hyams is permanently underrated, but I’m not sure that’s exactly right. It’s more that his talents are underappreciated; as a filmmaker, he was a craftsman rather than an auteur, despite invariably writing, directing and lensing his films. Hence working twice with Van Damme during a difficult ’90s stretch. And then Arnie, who thoroughly dissed him. But Arnie’s always one to blame his tools. Hyams had a strong – as in solid – run during the ’80s, The Presidio aside, and this represents the last of those. Yet Narrow Margin was underseen at the time and perhaps hasn’t undergone the re-evaluation it deserves.

Hyams decided to remake Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) after seeing it on television one night (apparently Howard Hughes liked the movie so much, he once planned a redo with a couple of big stars). He follows its loose template of a cat-and-mouse on a train journey in a bid to shepherd a witness to safety. Here, though, rather than a mob boss, we have Anne Archer’s wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time blind date Carol Hunnicut witnessing JT Walsh’s mob lawyer being offed by mobster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) and accompanying goon. She goes to ground until Hackman’s deputy DA Robert Caulfield digs her up. In Canada. Inevitably, he isn’t the only one on her trail, and before long they have fled to a train bound for Vancouver, hitmen in hot pursuit.

Caulfield: What does somebody who likes the train look like?

The movie absolutely relies on the pre-cell phone age and such concomitant ruses as cutting all communications en route. Hyams also introduces several plot turns less than deftly. It’s obvious as soon as Caulfield tells his cagey boss (JA Preston, of Hill Street Blues fame) of his scoop in front of associate Kevin McNulty that this is a red herring, that the boss is a good guy and it’s McNulty who will do him a wrong ’un. Which he duly does when Caulfield later confides in him. Later, Caulfield strikes up conversation with a widow (Susan Hogan), his suspicions focussed on the morbidly obese passenger (BA “Smitty” Smith) who has been watching him. Naturally, the widow is the “third man” on the train, while fatty turns out to be railroad security.

Such unvarnished plot mechanics don’t really don’t dent the greater well-oiled engine, though. Hyams knows how to keep up the suspense, and he couldn’t have a more serviceable lead than Hackman. It’s the kind of role you might imagine Harrison Ford in, albeit Ford would have passed on it as a little routine (he was still a few decades from Firewall). It might have been better to reveal Caulfield was a decorated marine earlier in the proceedings, as there’s a whole action sequence in a washroom where you’re wondering how come a lawyer’s so handy (and even knowing how come he’s so handy, it fails to explain his ability to dive to safety through a tiny window).

Caulfield: First you’ve lost your briefcase and now you’ve lost someone. You guys ought to be more careful.

Sadly, Archer isn’t very well catered for; she was so indelible as the wife in Fatal Attraction (a role with some memorable agency), yet she appeared consigned to playing the other half subsequently (Mrs Jack Ryan) even when she wasn’t (here). Mostly, though, this lack of characterisation is indicative of how stripped back Hyams’ show is. It’s all about Caulfield dodging and interacting with the bad guys, led by Nelson (James Sikking, also of Hill Street Blues but a Hyams regular since Capricorn One). Sikking’s marvellously unphased, steely menace makes him a worthy opponent for Hackman.

I’m usually in favour of movies knowing when to quit, but it’s curious that Hyams sets things up for Caufield and Hunnicut to be met by the mob at the station yet opts to wrap up with an abrupt voiceover phone call once the rooftop climax is over. Of which, Hogan’s fate is pure cheese and more suited to your average Arnie movie of the period than a thriller attempting a semblance of verisimilitude. The perfunctory ending almost suggests someone nixed a budget spend somewhere.

Narrow Margin came from Carolco during their peak period. However, while they had seven releases in 1990, of which Total Recall was by far the biggest hit, most of the rest (including the costly Air America) bombed or underperformed. To be honest, they probably shouldn’t have been surprised Narrow Margin did little business. Not only is it staple B-fodder that stays true to its roots, but Hackman headlining at this point was absolutely no guarantee of a hit. Far from it. Put him in a supporting role (No Way Out, Postcards from the Edge) or Oscar bait (Mississippi Burning) and you’re away, but give him in an ’80s-style thriller – or melodrama – and audiences didn’t want to know (Misunderstood, Twice in a Lifetime, Target, The Package, Loose Cannons and Bat*21 all stiffed). It was Unforgiven that really gave him a second wind of strong parts until he retired.

Keller: No one loves a fat man but his grocer.

Which is in no way to do Narrow Margin down; it’s that welcome movie that knows its range. It’s unpretentious, gets the job done and provides a thrilling ride. Bruce Broughton delivers a suitably tense score, and Hyams under lights effectively, creating a strong atmosphere (there’s a great shot early on of Archer silhouetted through the crack of a door). Any movie that kills off JT Walsh and M Emmet Walsh in the first twenty minutes is going to have its work cut out for it, but Narrow Margin manages to bounce back.


Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the