Phone Booth (2003)

5 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Phone Booth” is among a certain type of thriller that places one character in one location for certain reasons that keep the plot going. Movies like this are fascinating for two reasons—1) It helps to show the talent of the actor playing that one person, since practically the whole movie has to ride on that performance. 2) It’s always interesting to see where the plot is going to go, since we, as an audience, are stuck in this location with the character. In the case of “Phone Booth,” we get a solid performance from Colin Farrell as he is trapped in a phone booth by a psychotic sniper who will shoot him if he leaves.
Joel Schumacher’s “Phone Booth” is pure thriller and very entertaining. It has a brisk pace, tight editing, a running time of 80 minutes, and twists and turns throughout. It even has the brave task of telling the story in real-time. It all begins with our introduction to slick, quick-thinking publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell, sporting a designer suit and a fake luxury watch) making deals through his cell phone while walking the streets of Manhattan. He’s a fast-talker who can make anything up on the spot (he could probably make deals with the Mafia if he could), and he won’t take “no” for an answer. Once business is taken care of, he makes his daily visit to a telephone booth (which, according to the opening ominous narration, he’ll be the last person to use before it is torn down) to call a young actress, Pam (Katie Holmes)—he doesn’t want the call to appear on his cellular bill, which his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) checks every month.

After Stu makes the call, the phone in the booth rings. Of course, he decides to answer it, thus setting in motion the scheme devised by a psychotic. The voice on the other line is tough, derisive, and menacing, and warns Stu that he knows everything he needs to know about him. He wants Stu to confess to Kelly that he wants to sleep with Pam, or he’ll go ahead and do it for him. So, Stu tries to talk his way out of this situation, but it turns out it’s more complicated than it seems. It turns that the caller is a sniper and has a rifle aimed right at him from one of the many windows surrounding the city street. He warns Stu that if he leaves the phone booth, he will be shot unless he does what the voice tells him to do.

And so, Stu is trapped in the phone booth, looking for ways to talk and think himself out of this dangerous fix. Things get even more complicated when the sniper shoots a thug who messes with Stu while he’s in the phone booth, and so the police see Stu as a key suspect. Any sudden movements, and the police will shoot him. The location is filled with panic, as the police captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) tries to handle the situation. He starts to believe that Stu is not the perpetrator, but a victim of something more than he expected. However, if Stu tells him what’s really happening here, he will be shot (and so will Ramey, as the voice threatens), and so he and Ramey have to communicate nonverbally while keeping the sniper from suspecting anything. That’s a clever move that keeps the tension level rising in this film.

It’s quite intriguing how the film is able to keep Stu inside that phone booth through a majority of the film’s running time. You would think that this predicament could be solved easily, but no—the writer Larry Cohen continues to find ways to keep him in there until the film reaches a suitable ending. Twist upon twist is thrown into the plot, and it just keeps going like that, keeping the suspense alive.

Colin Farrell is forced to carry this movie, and it’s a good, tough performance. He’s very effective in a performance that shows that confusion, fear, and unease can overcome even the most confident of men.

Kiefer Sutherland is the threatening sniper, as he does what he can with his limitations. The villain of “Phone Booth” is for the most part heard but not seen. Sutherland has one of those distinctive voices that you can’t help but listen to, even if he says something that you don’t want to hear.

There are a few things about “Phone Booth” that keep it from being great, however. For one thing, the women in Stu’s life are underwritten roles and it seems like any actress could play these parts. It’s hard to care for who Stu winds up caring for more when both their lives turn out to be in jeopardy later when they’re among the crowd, and the sniper plans to shoot someone else to further his point.

There’s also the hyperkinetic camerawork and editing styles that get pretty annoying after a while—it makes the film look more like a music video, as if director Schumacher wanted to try everything he could to keep the tension alive. Sometimes, it works; other times, it’s pretty irritating. But what really annoyed me, and thankfully went away quickly enough (though that’s not saying enough), was the overacting of a group of street hookers who, early in the central treacherous situation, constantly interrupt and annoy Stu by trying to get him out of the phone booth so they can “conduct their own business.” They never shut up! Their screeching complaining and ranting are enough to wish the sniper would just shoot them dead.

Thankfully, like I said, they’re out of the picture before they get even more aggressively annoying.

“Phone Booth” is a sharp, engaging thriller with a solid leading performance, a very menacing threat, and a story that keeps audiences on-edge. And as a plus, it’s over in just an hour and 20 minutes.

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