Hackman picks poor vehicle WEEKEND OF THE STARS

September 21, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "Narrow Margin," Gene Hackman catches the train but misses the boat. There's no doubt that Hackman is a great film actor, but it's a shame he doesn't display more discrimination in picking his vehicles.Derived from a 1952 black-and-white film noir about a cop and a female witness (Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor) fleeing hit men on a transcontinental train, this movie lumbers along as if fueled by coal, not diesel. It's the little engine that couldn't.

The original had one great advantage. In 1952, of course, the train was a preferred method of long-distance transportation. No one had to explain a train. Peter Hyams, who directs this version, was clearly attracted to the possibilities of a man- (or, in this case, woman-) hunt on the paranoid confines of a moving streamliner, but in order to give it even a patina of believability, he must revert to a complicated, frantic, completely unbelievable set-up scenario. This eventually isolates Hackman and Anne Archer, as the unlucky woman who saw a gangster pop a lawyer in a hotel room, upon a choo-choo roaring through the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies with no help possible. That ludicrous chain of unlikelihoods gets the movie off to a rickety start.

And Archer is another problem. She was so good in "Fatal Attraction," but in subsequent performances she's become a smug, puffy cartoon of "The Good Woman." Here, given nothing to do but scream and flinch or utter some of the banal banter that Hyams (who also wrote as well as photographed this work) concocts for her, she never becomes remotely interesting. She's a plot gimmick disguised as a human being.

The best "relationship" scene is actually between the guys. It involves avuncular Hackman, who has the gift of suggesting strength under his affable exterior, and MAC-10 toting, avuncular bad boy James B. Sikking, who has the same gift. When these two chat it up in the club car, all salesman-bonhomie on the outside and shark's ferocity underneath, the movie briefly perks up.

And then it perks down. It turns out that as a setting, the train is severely limiting. There's simply no place to go and most of the action has an aching similarity to it -- Hackman has but two ploys. He can either hide Archer from the bad guys, or he can lure them to the roof or between the cars, and knock them into Canada, where they die of either concussion or boredom, whichever comes first. He does too much of both.

Worse still, the movie is continually bluffing its way through the details. Another of the pleasures of low-road projects like this one is seeing how cleverly the writer can solve or finesse the inherent problems in the setup. Hyams has no luck, and he keeps bumbling chances.

In one ludicrous situation, Hackman makes it to a phone, calls an ally and requests police backup; but the recipient of his call is a traitor and instead of coppers, hit men show up. An hour later. In a remote frontier town of the Canadian Rockies. Uh-huh. So how did the traitor get them there so fast? Did he call 1-800-DIAL-A-HIT?

"Narrow Margin" is the last train from Dumb Hill.

'Narrow Margin'

Starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer.

Directed by Peter Hyams.

Distributed by Orion.

Rated R.

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