A man on a New York street answers a ringing phone in a phone booth. The voice on the other side of the line tells him he'll die by a sniper's bullet if he doesn't do as the voice says. Yes, Phone Booth is, at the core, a gimmick movie, but if all gimmick movies were as well-executed as this, I'd have little reason to complain about them -- ever.
Few gimmick movies work this effectively, and the best ones play up their strengths. Panic Room -- about good guys trapped in a panic room with bad guys trying to break in -- benefitted from quirky characters who didn't always do the smartest thing in each sitation. Speed -- about a passenger-filled bus that will blow up if the speed falls below 55 mph -- was blessed with a great villainous performance by Dennis Hopper and likeable leads in Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Plots like these need that extra something to last their hour-and-a-half running time. Phone Booth has three things going for it: excellent acting by lead Colin Farrell, a great vocal performance by Kiefer Sutherland, and tight storytelling by screenwriter Larry Cohen and director Joel Schumacher.
I'm surprised at the work done here by Schumacher, who has turned out a few critically-lambasted titles recently, such as Bad Company and 8MM, neither of which I've seen -- I didn't need to because my reaction to the horrid Batman and Robin was enough to build up a large supply of ill-will toward any movie with Schumacher's name on it. But he's on his way to winning me back with Phone Booth. The exaggerated, hyperkinetic tone of the movie is fitting -- as the anxiety of Farrell's character, Stu Shepard, increases, the noise level of the everything around him seems to go up, from the sounds of the people around him to the taunting voice on the phone. Visually frantic, the movie employs everything from four-way split screens to sniper p.o.v. shots. But it never feels out of control because Cohen's script keeps the focus on Stu. Occasionally, the focus wanders to the conversations of the cops dealing with the situation, but never for long. Overall, the movie is highly efficient.
Phone Booth features a grand one-man show by Colin Farrell (The Recruit), who starts the movie as a slick and slimy P.R. rep, slips into a cowering and blubbering mass, then rises back up to become a man who's surprised to find any strength of conviction within himself. It's a great chance to show off -- no wonder the role was coveted by several A-list stars. It's hard, however, to imagine an actor other than Farrell doing this part after seeing the movie. He's very convincing because he isn't terribly extreme -- his character is guilty of committing several thoughtless moral transgressions, which is the reason the sniper is extorting him, but nothing Stu has done seems overtly terrible. Many people are equally as thoughtless as Stu, and some even worse. No one should be forced to make public confessions in the way the sniper forces him to do. Farrell makes Stu seem outwardly extreme and inwardly moderate, so even though he starts out as someone we'd love to hate, we still feel we can put ourselves in his shoes throughout his plight. He makes his less-than-shiny human side and the self-doubts it carries recognizable -- a strength Farrell has over someone like, say, Tom Cruise.
Meanwhile, by using only his voice, Sutherland (star of TV's "24") plays one sick angel of moral justice. He deftly navigates the area between being unreasonable and making some sort of sense. He's obviously disturbed because he's enjoying his role of confession-extractor a little too much, but, in some perverse way, he's also convincing because the point he's making involves how callous people are to one another. It gives the perfect effect for the audience -- you're scared of what the sniper might do, but at the same time you believe there's a being of reason behind that voice, and you keep hoping Stu will be able to appeal to it just enough. Between Farrell's struggle to stay composed and Sutherland's constant teasing, the situation enthralled me.
Phone Booth never tries to be anything more than what it is, and it does what it does extremely well. Skillfully put-together, it's a great time at the movies. When you check it out, just be sure to stop by the concession stand and buy some butter to go with your fingernails.
(Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.)
Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for pervasive strong language and some violence.