In Los Angeles, Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) meets lawyer Michael Tarlow (J.T. Walsh) for dinner on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. They are interrupted by mob boss Leo Watts (Harris Yulin), who confronts Tarlow about missing money. Leo's goon shoots and kills Tarlow, not knowing that Carol is a witness. She hurriedly leaves town and finds refuge in a remote cabin in Canada's wilderness.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) and Detective Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) track Carol down and try to convince her to return to Los Angeles to testify against Watts. But a mob hit squad is hot on Caulfield's trail and he has to spring into action to escape the flying bullets and save Carol's life. They jump on a train to Vancouver, triggering a long hide-and-seek game between Caulfeild and assorted henchmen.
Directed and written by Peter Hyams, Narrow Margin is a remake of a 1952 Richard Fleischer film. The modern take stumbles into a prolonged and unconvincing showdown on a slow train, as Caulfield bundles Carol from cabin to cabin and takes off to confront the bad guys in scenes with stale threats punctuated by implausible action.
It is quite clear early on that Caulfield can trust no one, the bad guys have infiltrated the district attorney's office and evil awaits at random stops along the way in the Canadian wilderness. The henchmen suffer from the common disease of instantaneous incompetence when provided with opportunities to finish the job. Caulfield predictably stays one step ahead of all his pursuers, although he too is capable of moronic moments that serve to prolong the chase and run down the clock towards the magical 90 minute mark.
Meanwhile, Carol is reduced to sitting in dark train cabins, staring out of the window and doing little until the next time Caulfield comes knocking on the door for another bout of wooden dialogue. Despite the scarcity of material, the script never takes a meaningful risk to delve into the characters beyond their superficial trappings.
In one of his weaker outings Hackman is not able to rise above the material and offers little to latch onto beyond the typical government agent following his own strong moral compass. Anne Archer fares worse, her 1980s hairdo not helping as she is confined to a static woman-needs-protection role. Neither witty nor entertaining, Narrow Margin is as dismal as its damsel in distress.
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