No one can argue with Peter Hyams' skill as a director of action sequences - remember that harrowing car chase on the El in "Running Scared"?
And he's also good - sometimes very good - as a cinematographer. (Who besides Bo Derek's director-husband, John, does his own photography these days?)But with his latest thriller, "Narrow Margin," he could have used a collaborator on the screenplay and maybe even in the directing of dialogue sequences between the action.
"Narrow Margin," a remake of the 1952 B-classic of the same title, has basically the same plot - a prosecutor tries to bring in a woman to testify after she witnesses a mob murder, only to be trapped on a moving train with the mobsters.
In the old film the woman was the gangster victim's widow. Here she is Anne Archer (Michael Douglas' wife in "Fatal Attraction"), an editor at a publishing house who also happens to be a sophisticated divorcee.
The film opens with her reluctant blind date with lawyer J.T. Walsh, who seems like a heck of a nice guy. It isn't long, however, before Archer sees him murdered in cold blood by a notorious gangster client (Harris Yulin) whom he's been cheating. But Yulin doesn't know Archer is there.
So she heads for the hills, literally, to a remote mountain cabin in Canada, only to be tracked down by a stern deputy district attorney (Gene Hackman) who wants her to testify so he can put Yulin away.
Unfortunately, Hackman was followed by the bad guys, so he and Archer find themselves on the lam in the woods, hitching a ride on a passenger train headed for Vancouver.
The cat-and-mouse high jinks that follow are fairly predictable and come alive only as the action explodes from time to time. The best sequence is toward the end, a stunning chase on top of the train where, sometimes, there are obviously no doubles for the two stars.
Unfortunately, the film has many dry spots along the way, not to mention implausible behavior, as Hackman and Archer try to outquip each other with one-liners that feel more awkward than funny, and they do myriad dumb things. There are also red herrings about the identity of one of the bad guys aboard the train and who the traitor in the D.A.'s office might be that are all too easy to figure out.
To say all of this is contrived is to understate.
Archer tries valiantly to lend some class to her thinly written role, but it's pure damsel-in-distress stuff. Hackman, an amazing actor who seems unable to do anything wrong, even with a part as occasionally wrong-headed as this one, lends some depth to his tired but earnest deputy D.A., a man who seems utterly incorruptible. (As written, a chink in the armor might have helped a bit, and Hackman is portrayed as being a bit too good with his fists to be believed as simply a desk and courtroom-bound prosecutor.)
And there is able support from M. Emmet Walsh, who disappears all too soon as Hackman's cop sidekick; James B. Sikking as a nasty hitman; and Yulin as the sullen crime boss.
There is also that dazzling sequence on top of and to the side of the train, while it rattles along bridges over steep caverns, with the Canadian Rockies providing a stunning backdrop to the action.
If that's enough, you may enjoy "Narrow Margin." Otherwise, be warned.
It is rated R for violence and profanity.